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!

It’s for this experimental film that nobody knows about and which I’m still figuring out what’s going to go in my experimental film.

Hey, look at this thing I made:

Study for Insomnia from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This is what I spent the last 4 days doing, instead of everything else I should have been doing instead. I’m calling it “Study for Insomnia.”

It began as a demo for artist Cindy Ng 吴少英, whose video work is presented in the same room as my 路口 sound installation at Art+Shanghai (you have until November 1 to see the show, so hurry!). She was asking how my piece was constructed (audio “phrases” strung together and overlapped in real-time by a computer, providing constant variation), and I suggested that it would be possible to use the same technique to deploy her video work. I made a quick demo to show her last weekend before we collaborated on one of her “Ink Walk” performances, and she was intrigued to the point that we’re now planning a full-on collaboration. I’ve continued to flesh out my little demo over the last few days into something I’m pretty happy with, and it ought to serve as a pretty good template for whatever we end up doing together.

Like most of my electronic pieces, there’s no pure synthesis going on; everything is manipulated from source recordings, in this case, video and audio recordings of rumpled bed sheets (yes, the inspiration came while lying awake a few nights ago). The unpredictable patterns that result are similar to other kinds of natural phenomena from which I draw inspiration (e.g., rain, fireworks, traffic), chaotic on a small scale, but consistent on a large scale. Like my other installation work, the piece can continue indefinitely, with no beginning or end; here, for convenience, I’ve recorded only a brief excerpt.

I guess you could call this my first video piece. I’ve been using Jitter, the video-processing add-on for Max/MSP for over a year, although this is the first time I’m presenting the results publicly. The first time I used it was in the software I developed for my performance (together with Yan Jun 颜峻 and Bruce Gremo) of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival in October 2008, but it was used only to prepare cues for myself, not projected for the audience to see. (In fact, in the very first version of this little demo, I used a snippet from Screen Play as video source, a shot of rolling waves.) I’ve also used Jitter in some consulting I did for a videogame company last winter, analyzing audio signals to generate game levels.

I’m not sure yet if this will ultimately serve as the background texture of a bigger piece later on, or if it’s fine just as it is, as a super ambient standalone piece. I could see it working as a backdrop for a live performance. Or it could work in a gallery setting (ideally with 4 channels of sound). For what it’s worth, in terms of scale and mood, the 4-day process of putting this program together felt very much like writing a pop song.

What’s happening in the program is pretty simple. I’m picking little bits of my original bed sheet video and slowing them down, rotating them, and fading in and out from black. There are four asynchronous layers of this activity happening at once. The speeds are different, and there are slight hue offsets for each phrase. I adjust the contrast, hue, and saturation, and I add some feedback. For each video phrase, I pick an audio phrase from my original wave file (recorded separately from the video), and fade in and out, in time with the video. I’m also analyzing the average brightness of each video stream and using that to control the pitch of a bank of filters that the audio runs through before hitting the speakers. For each phrase I pick a different pitch multiplier (over roughly 4 octaves of a just intonation minor scale, not that it matters). Hue, feedback, filter Q, cutoff frequency, and probably a few other things are slowly modulated by random offsets to keep things interesting. I found there are lots of settings that produce different outcomes, all acceptable, so I implemented the old John Cage dictum: “Say we have a problem and 100 solutions; instead of chosing just one of them, we use them all.”

I ran into a tricky little trigonometry problem while working on this piece. I had to figure out the zoom ratio while rotating the images so that I wouldn’t go off the image and add weird black edges to the composite. I pondered long and hard, and I think I was at least looking in the right direction, but I eventually had to enlist the help of my pal Micah Sittig, who teaches physics over at SMIC Private School, and to whose class I gave a little presentation on music acoustics last March. He solved the problem in about a minute. It’s good to have smart friends. Thanks, Micah!

Crazy coincidence: yesterday while working on this piece, I thought I’d take a break and listen to something new, and a CD of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen came to mind. I picked up this disk following one of the premiere performances of his fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater in Paris in 2006, but I had never listened to it. I feel like a CD, if I have any reason to believe it will be good, really ought to have a focused and concentrated first listening, and consequently, I have a huge stack of shame of CD’s I’ve purchased, but haven’t yet had the time to devote to a proper first listen. Especially with all the hoo-ha about the new music director Gustavo Dudamel taking Salonen’s place at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I’ve been thinking lately I really ought to listen to it. So today I picked it up and unwrapped it, and to my amazement, the last piece is also called Insomnia! I’d already been planning to call this new piece of mine something about insomnia for a few days, so I swear I didn’t steal the idea, unless it was buried somewhere deep in my subconscious. Anyway, I just listened to it, and it’s really a really nice piece, though somewhat more detailed than mine. Isn’t that nuts?

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!

路口

I am so stoked about my new sound installation 路口, currently on display at the Art+ Gallery, located at 22 Fumin Lu, near Yan’an Lu, in Shanghai, 上海市富民路22弄2号, 近延安路. (Note new address! This is the first show in their new space.) It’s part of a show called 无为 Being and Nothing, on display from September 9 through November 1, 2009, Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm (closed Mondays).

路口, or Lukou, means “intersection” or “crossroads” in Mandarin. It’s a four channel sound installation, programmed in Max/MSP, that manipulates some field recordings I made of Shanghai traffic at various intersections around town. As with all of my sound installation work, the sound is produced by a computer program running in real-time, to ensure that the sound never loops and never repeats itself. These pieces are extensions of my thinking about non-linear, time-based structures, honed over 13 year of videogame development. Lukou has no beginning or end; instead, each listener creates her or his own beginning and end by entering and leaving the space. It’s more of a sonic environment than a musical composition.

Here’s the blurb I wrote about it for the show:

Lukou 路口 is a four-channel sound installation that manipulates recordings of a busy Shanghai intersection, dramatically slowing down the sounds to create a lush, meditative environment. The piece seeks to focus concentration by reframing everyday sounds, encouraging people to listen to and evaluate aspects of their environment that they might otherwise ignore. Borrowing techniques from videogame audio design, Lukou presents a continuously evolving, real-time soundscape, generating new juxtapositions and permutations as long as people care to listen. Being stuck in traffic often leads to rash impulses and flares of temper, but at a time when the world’s eyes are riveted by Shanghai’s breakneck development, Lukou provides an opportunity for reflection, forging something beautiful from the city’s chaotic detritus, while also questioning those aspects of our environment and ourselves that we might change for the better.

I started thinking about this piece back in 2004 or 2005, back in my first Shanghai apartment. I was recording something in my living room (I think it may have been a draft of Mobile 2, which you can hear on my MySpace page), and I happened to catch the sound of a passing scooter’s squeaky brakes. For whatever socio-economical reasons, electric scooters with squeaky brakes are a unique and ubiquitous characteristic of Shanghai’s cityscape. It’s a complex, metallic sound, high and piercing (perhaps best served by the French term grinçant), so I thought it might be fun, since I already had it right there in Sound Forge, to futz with it a bit, the way I have often futzed with recordings to create videogame sound effects. When I slowed the pitch way, way down, the recording revealed an interior world of slowly shifting overtones that evoked whale song, an impression aided by the wash of low frequency noise into which the rush of traffic transformed. I was fascinated by this sound and bookmarked it, to use as the basis for a future piece.

In the summer of 2006, abetted by my pal Zhou Jing 周静, I went out and made some field recordings of traffic sounds, to make a study of this idea and see how it might work as a sound installation. These recordings also proved rich in potential for manipulation, and I built a simple Max patch to test my deployment ideas, but put the idea away again until such time as I could find a proper venue in which to present the piece in four channels, which was central to my conception of the work. I also recognized the need to record additional source material at a higher sampling rate, so as to minimize aliasing noise when the recordings were slowed way down.

In the time since, I had presented my Lukou studies in a live performance at D22 in Beijing and in a RESO show at Yu Yin Tang here in Shanghai, but the opportunity to fully revisit the piece as an installation finally came when Diana Freundl approached me about participating in the opening performance of the new show 无为 Being and Nothing that she was putting together at the Art+ Gallery. One of the artists already confirmed for the show was Cindy Ng Sio Ieng 吴少英, and in addition to her visual art on display, she was seeking a sonic collaborator for one of her live video performances, in which she creates slowly evolving images by pouring ink, beer, milk, and other liquids onto a glass plane, which are captured by a video camera and projected onto a wall of the gallery. I found a clear resonance between my Lukou idea and Cindy’s flowing, evolving forms, as well as in Diana’s concept of exploring non-intention; after talking it over, it became clear that Lukou would work not only as an opening party performance, but as an installation that would run as part of the show for its duration.

The deployment of the sound in the piece is actually pretty simple, especially compared to my other sound installations (such as Kaleidoscope Wallpaper or Breaking New Ground). The program picks one of fourteen wave files, picks a duration for each phrase, chooses a point in the original source file at which to start, and chooses volume and pitch offsets. As each phrase plays, a random envelope generator gives it shape. At some point in the second half of each phrase, a new phrase begins; how close to the end is constrained by a random walk, so that there’s a larger scale ebb and flow between dense and sparse textures. The four speakers are arranged in a square in the corners of the room, suggesting a traffic intersection, and each phrase is played on two adjacent speakers (preserving the stereo imaging of the source material), randomly chosen.

That’s about it, really; I toyed with more complex procedures, but I was so pleased by the diversity (and consistency) of this simple formula that I kept it pretty close to my original prototype. When I got the piece running with all four speakers, I knew I had made the right choice.

Have a listen to a 2-channel demo.

From a curatorial perspective, this show is a dream come true; I couldn’t have asked for a better forum in which to present Lukou to the public. Diana has an academic background in Eastern religion, and she sought to bring together a collection of artworks that examine or address aspects of 无为 (wuwei), which can be rendered as “non-action,” and is primarily associated with Taoist or Buddhist meditation, but can be equally applied to Sartrean philosophy. Check out her articulate introduction to the show. In addition to Cindy and I, the other artists exploring these themes in the show are Shi Zhiying 石至莹, Wang Hui 王辉, and Wang Jun 王俊.

Here’s a blurb I wrote about the connection between 无为 and my own practice for the show’s catalogue:

Traditionally, the main thrust of Western art music is drama; whether the music is overtly programmatic or abstract, composers are trained to develop their music along dramatic lines, creating tension and release through contrast, and employing harmonic development, changes in dynamics, and various other developmental techniques to play with memory and anticipation. Or in the case of music for the stage or, later, cinema, the music’s purpose is to follow and support the drama unfolding in another medium. From the time I began developing music for videogames in 1996, however, I realized this paradigm was ill-suited to the kind of unpredictable, non-linear environment that videogames represent.

So I turned my attention to a less prominent, but more ancient, strand of music history: sacred music. Sound is by definition always moving, but in music composed for meditation or ritual, the difference is that sound is not moving towards a specific goal. Of course, this means that the sound is constrained in some ways, but it also provides freedom within those constraints to fill the sonic space with endless permutations and juxtapositions. In the liturgical Lutheran music culture into which I was born, the notion of endless permutations is usually only suggested by the contours of a fixed work, or by the call and response chanting of Psalms; but in the socialized, participatory West African drumming around which I grew up and the Buddhist chanting in the temples of my adopted home in Shanghai, this perpetual mutability is overt. When you don’t know where the music will go next, you focus your attention on the present.

This ethos of non-intention fills the work of the pioneers of open-form composition in the 20th century: John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and, in several subsequent works, European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Witold Lutoslawski. These artists realized that by incorporating chance operations into the execution of their works, one idea could find infinite incarnations, with no two performances ever being the same. As John Cage put it in 36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamps (1970), “Say we have a problem and one hundred solutions. Instead of choosing just one of them, we use them all.”

In a videogame, this means that the music is able to turn on a dime to follow the emergent dramatic trajectory of the game itself. But the benefits are not simply practical (and let us pause for a moment to consider how amazing it is that 50 years after the experiments of these avant-garde composers were considered by some to be hopelessly inscrutable and irrelevant, they may now be considered a practical precursor to videogame audio design). These kinds of real-time, algorithmic structures provide the tools to define a different kind of sonic space, one that is not linked to the drama of the concert hall, but to the non-teleological, continuously evolving, unpredictable processes of nature. In the same way that Merce Cunningham could point out the window at passing traffic and explain to a student that his work was about “that,” real-time, algorithmic sound in an installation can propose new ways of thinking about the environment around us, our interactions with others in it, and ourselves.

Not only is the show a good thematic match for my work, but Diana has also achieved exactly the kind of imaginative presentation of digital media that I was calling for a while back. The bare minimum for presenting works with a sound component is isolation; so many shows, such as the Fat Art show in which I was involved last April, present sound-producing works in such a way that they overlap each other and become impossible to evaluate or appreciate in any significant way. But to go beyond that bare minimum and present digital media works that complement each other takes a great degree of sensitivity, and Diana has accomplished exactly that in pairing my Lukou installation with a video by Cindy Ng. Both pieces share a sense of inevitable, natural evolution, of one form opening up and unfolding into the next, to the extent that visitors to the show are often surprised that the pieces weren’t developed in collaboration. And in addition to the insightful curating, the show is very well-presented overall, with thoughtful titles, layout, and lighting; it’s a privilege to be associated with such a professional production.

One of the reasons the show has gone so smoothly is that I finally carried out my threat to provide all my own equipment, which allows me to ensure that everything’s up to snuff. For Breaking New Ground and Kaleidoscope Wallpaper, I dutifully outlined my sound equipment needs well in advance, but when it came to set up, the equipment provided was not what I had requested, and in both cases resulted in a lot of unnecessary last minute scrambling. For Breaking New Ground, I had to go buy a new sound card at the last minute, but the end result was satisfactory (if a bit wasteful); at Fat Art, less so. So this time I arranged to provide all my own gear and rent it to the gallery, which means I’m running this show at a loss, but I plan to make it up with future installations (and I’m able to leverage the sound card from Breaking New Ground). (Especially after checking out this year’s eArts exhibit at the Oriental Pearl Tower a few days ago, where about 1/3 of the pieces weren’t working or calibrated correctly, I’m a big fan of operating within one’s means and not relying on other people to supply gear and set it up for you.)

There are just two things of which I want to make a note, so I can try to improve them in future shows (and it’s great that the show is so well presented that my only quibbles are so minor).

One is that the air conditioner at times can be a little loud; this gets back to the ventilation issue we overlooked in constructing our Kaleidoscope room at Fat Art; it’s intermittent, and it’s not egregious, and no one has commented on it, but it reminds me nonetheless that this is a problem that must be explicitly considered at each installation.

The other thing is in the presentation of Cindy’s video (which also affects how my piece is perceived, as visitors experience them simultaneously). The content of her video is an abstract unfolding of natural processes, implicitly suggesting they might continue indefinitely; in acknowledgement of this characteristic, the piece is titled 无垠, or No Limit. But in fact the piece does have a limit: the video loops every 5 minutes. Longtime readers of my blog know that I adhere to a strict “no loops” mantra, and while I do think the piece would be better served by a real-time deployment mechanism that could generate endless permutations of the source video, that’s not really the main issue. What’s distracting is that the loop is emphasized by having the words “The End” come up on the screen, followed by a credits screen, which seems almost comical in the context of a piece called No Limit. From my observation, viewers often interpret this as a cue to leave, like being told a park is closing, even though my sound piece continues to play. I don’t mean to come across as unduly critical, but having spent a lot of time in the installation since the opening, I feel this is a phenomenon worth mentioning, that we may all learn from it. I feel the place for credits in a video installation is the same as for a sculpture or painting: on the wall next to the piece. Flashing these credits interrupts an experience that I had hoped would be indefinitely continuous; it turns the piece from a video installation (part of a continuing space) into just a video, which in this case seems inconsistent with the video’s content.

For completists, here is a list of the intersections that were recorded as part of Lukou:

Summer 2009
Damuqiao Lu 大木桥路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Quxi Lu 瞿溪路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Er Lu 瑞金二路/Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路
Tianyaoqiao Lu/ 天钥桥路Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路

Summer 2006
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Fuxing Lu 复兴路
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Huaihai Lu 淮海路

Lots of people helped with this piece. Big thanks to Jutta for her help and encouragement, particularly with helping to design the suspension mechanism for the speakers and helping to mount all of the equipment in the gallery (she clearly wears the toolbelt in this relationship). Thanks to Zhou Jing for her help with the initial field recording sessions and for encouraging me to see this project through to the next phase. Thanks to everyone at Art+ Gallery, Ana and Agnes for being incredibly sweet and encouraging, and especially to Diana for inviting me to participate in the first place, as well as helping out with countless details, large and small. Being part of this show has been an absolute joy!

Reminder: you have until November 1, 2009, to go and hear the piece for yourself!