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!

The Return of Synth-pop

Allow me to share a few words concerning my synth-pop debut at the sold-out Antidote Electronic Music Festival in the Shanghai water town suburb of Zhujiajiao last Saturday.

This was the first time I’ve done a solo set like this since a three-song open mic night performance at the Art Bar in Seattle on July 17, 1997. And by “set like this” I mean full-on synth-pop, with me singing and playing some keyboard parts live on top of bright, intricate, rhythmic backing tracks (essentially the Depeche Mode recipe).

First step was to properly record all of the songs, and the last one, “Prebound,” was finished just over a week before the festival. I’ve started doing three mixes of each new song I record: one full version, one karaoke version (you never know), and one “music minus one” version, in which I mute the main keyboard tracks that I want to play live.

Once all five songs in my short set were written and recorded, I wrote three patches in Max/MSP to help me pull them off live.

The first patch behaves very similarly to Windows Media Player or Winamp or whatever: simple transport controls (play, stop, pause, resume), with a big slider at the bottom to instantly access any part of the song (primarily for rehearsing). I use this to play back the “music minus one” mix.

Then I wrote a simple sample-playback synth in Max. I wasn’t about to haul all of my synthesizers out and set them up on stage, so I sampled the eight or so sounds I required. When MIDI note information comes in from my five octave M-Audio Axiom keyboard controller (connected via USB), my program maps the sampled notes across the full keyboard range, with a simple attack/decay envelope applied. The result is generally not quite as dynamic or vibrant as the original sound, but close enough.

Last I wrote a patch that would track my current position in each song and load different sounds into my sampler at the necessary times. (My playback patch outputs the current song position in milliseconds, making this pretty easy to do.) If you start playing in the middle of a song, it’s smart enough to look back and see what the current patch should be and load that. I didn’t use any of Max’s sequencing objects for this, just a simple collection.

None of this sounds super impressive, I guess. Altogether it probably took me about four days to do. I suppose a lot of people would have done this in a sequencer like Cubase, and I imagine that could work well enough (although I find Cubase a terrible patch librarian). The main advantage for me was that everything could be completely automated, so that on stage I just had to type 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to load one of my five songs, the hit the space bar to start, and all of my patch changes happened automatically, so I could focus instead on singing in tune.

The show went alright, not bad for a matinee. I was up first, so folks were still trickling in, but those who were there seemed to dig it well enough. There were a few flubs that I need to iron out with more practice. It was a terrible idea to follow “口口口口口口口口” with “Prebound;” after shouting at the top of my voice, it was very hard to keep that low falsetto in tune. Also, I borrowed a keyboard stand (from the friendly folks over at Resist! Resist!, resplendent in their fine debut performance!), and it was a little short for me, so my whole posture felt out of whack (though I tried to pass it off as an intentionally splayed and petulant rock stance); it was really silly of me not to practice and perform with my own keyboard stand.

Next steps: practice, buy my own keyboard stand, add more songs to the set, and update my sampler to handle keyboard splits! Then when all that’s solid, I’m going to work on real-time algorithmically generated visuals, but that’s a ways off, I think.

Big thanks to Michael and the Antidote crew for inviting me to participate, a super swell time!

DJ Biff Jorgensen, SPS

Here’s a sample of what you get if you ask me to DJ:

Lusine, Ask You
Laurie Anderson (featuring Lou Reed), In Our Sleep
Vampire Weekend, Oxford Comma
Duran Duran, Big Bang Generation
Salif Keita, Africa
Prince, 3121
Jolin, 说爱你
Vanessa Paradis, Divine Idylle
Johnny Cash, Daddy Sang Bass
Carl Stone, Flint’s
DJ [Yamatsuka] Eye, Moth
Pierre Henry/Fatboy Slim, Psyche Rock
Wayne Horvitz & Pigpen, ‘Cause I’m in Love Yeah
Serge Gainsbourg, Love on the Beat
Big Audio Dynamite, Rush
Ben Houge, Jessica’s Scissors
Aphex Twin, 4
Christian Marclay, Frederic Chopin
Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Struktur XV” from Kontakte
Jay Chou, 牛仔很忙

I made my unwitting DJ debut at the launch party for the Mommy Foundation at CANART last Friday. I was originally asked to just do my thing, so I was planning to play the same type of ambient stuff I played at 2 Kolegas and D-22 in Beijing last month, basically presenting some of my real time ambient sound installation pieces as performances. But I increasingly got the sense that more danceable party fare was what was desired (especially after I heard the Antidote folks had already turned them down), so I ended up just playing a bunch of my favorite MP3’s. I actually prepared way more than what’s in this list, but didn’t have time to get to a lot of it; in particular, there should have been more Chinese rock. Also some Curtis Roads. And Christophe. And Naked City. Wait, I want to do it over!

I think I’m going to write a Max patch to help with transitions and stuff in the future, though that means I’ll have to rerip a bunch of music as MP3’s instead of WMA’s. Anyway, let me know if you want me to spin at your bat mitzvah or whatever; I’m officially on the market!

I did take advantage of the fact that a bunch of guys pretty much cleared the room by playing about 10 levels of Rock Band halfway through the evening to test the waters with some of my installation pieces, and actually, for a mellower, end-of-party scenario, Radiospace in particular focus grouped pretty well in a gallery environment, especially when I let folks tune to their own radio broadcasts.

And let me share a related observation (not necessarily leveled at this particular event). It seems a lot of arts folks, when planning art parties, after carefully coordinating all of the other details of the event to deliver a certain aesthetic experience, will nonetheless go for the knee-jerk, “Ooh, and we need a DJ!” solution when it comes to planning their party’s sonic environment. I encourage everyone to be equally vigilant when selecting a sound of their arts events, and to seek out music and performers who are aesthetically matched with the rest of the experience. There’s such a tremendous range of possibilities for party music other than the electronic dance music default, and art folks in particular should be sensitive to this fact. It always strikes me as odd when people who delve deep into visual aesthetics and issues and movements don’t exhibit the same curiosity and rigor towards sound.

Consult your qualified music consultant today!

Song and Me

I’m getting all the boring singer/songwriter patter out of the way here, where it’s easy to ignore, so I won’t bore everyone at this Sunday’s gig. If you want, just skip to the end of this post for a peek at Sunday’s set list. Don’t forget the details: this March 22, 2009, Yu Yin Tang, 1731 Yan’an Xi Lu (near Kaixuan Lu), 8pm, 30 RMB, opening for 10!

I’ve been writing pop songs since about 6th grade. That would be around 1986, when I was about 11. My first song was called “Blue Eyes,” co-written with fellow missionary kid Andy Laesch. We had a band we called Center of the Earth, which we, as pious MK’s, eventually decided had infernal undertones, so we renamed our duo Outer Space. We wrote a bunch of songs of which I could still hum a few bars, with titles like “Electricity” and “Midnight Spooks,” and we recorded them into a little boom box, doubling up on vocal duties, with me accompanying on the little Casiotone keyboard I got for my 9th birthday, shortly after my family moved to Liberia.

I saw it one day—blue eyes
I knew it right away—blue eyes
So clear from the start—blue eyes
It brought love to my heart—blue eyes

Oh, oh, blue eyes
Oh, oh, blue eyes
Blue eyes

Even before that, I remember putting together an instrumental, auto-chord extravaganza, featuring such titles as, “Just Noise???” now lost to the ages.

I kept writing songs in junior high and high school, while attending the International Christian Academy in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, switching to Christian themes, along the lines of the Petra, Michael W. Smith, Steve Taylor, Benny Hester, Steve Camp, White Heart, and Randy Stonehill cassettes I was listening to at the time. By far the standout hit of those boarding school years was “Rainbow,” co-written with “Guitar Man” Dan Pinkston (who now has a DMA in music and teaches at Simpson College). We performed this snappy tune with our band The Utensils (which at times also included staff members Kurt Werner and Brad Trosen on bass) around our school campus, in chapel, or just for pals.

My songwriting hit a new apex with “Epilogue,” mostly composed on the plane trip from Africa back to the US in the summer of 1990, following my 10th grade year. I spent my last two years of high school in Seward, NE, and I would often play my little songs on my friend Kathryn’s piano (much more often, in fact, than I actually had a willing audience). “Epilogue” was generally the most warmly received (unless I tossed in some Richard Marx).

I got my first synthesizer in the summer of 1990, the mighty Roland D-20 workstation (with a built-in 8 track sequencer + drum machine), and I set about sequencing synth-pop arrangements of my tunes, producing the better part of two “albums” in these two years. You will never hear them. The first, Nine Generic Love Songs, included “Epilogue” and was written during my junior year for the girl for whom I yet pined back at boarding school. The second was pulled together during my sophomore year of college and was eventually entitled Titled Untitled, comprising 17 songs mostly written during my senior year of high school, although two songs dated from my boarding school years (including a synth-pop version of “Rainbow”), and a few newer tunes also slipped in. While working on the first master in January 1994, I felt embarrassed that I was spending so much time on such ancient material, and that my college girlfriend was unrepresented, so I added the track “I Tell Her Everything,” by far the best thing on the album.

I did some really wacky stuff in high school, digging deep into the synthesis potential of my Roland D-20 and experimenting with odd meters, sudden harmonic shifts to distantly related key areas, microtonality, polytonality, even random procedures, a sign of things to come, I guess, as in the instrumental track “Genevieve” (the middle name of a girl I smooched at show choir camp), which dates from late 1991. The percussion tracks were recorded as a series of overdubs with the volume turned off, so I didn’t know where I was playing in relation to the beat or previous takes, an idea I think I got from a Keyboard magazine article.

At first I recorded my sequences and overdubs on a little cassette 4-track I borrowed from my high school band teacher. Later in college I bought a second-hand Tascam 238 Syncaset 8-track tape recorder and made new recordings; I continued to remix and rerecord these songs for quite a while, eventually bolstering Nine Generic Love Songs with four thematically related “outtakes,” and finally producing a digital master after moving to Seattle in 1996. Good practice, I guess.

I continued to write songs after commencing studies at St. Olaf College, but as a composition major, I was also starting to branch out into other kinds of writing. I would often try to slip some of the new ideas I was learning in music theory class into my songs, such as a German augmented sixth chord in “One-sided” (written as a homework assignment) and common tone modulation by way of an augmented chord in “The Verge of a Girlfriend.” The instrumental track “Jim/James” was the result of a homework assignment to write a minuet and trio (co-written by classmate JP Moninger, my partner on the assignment), and also snuck onto Titled Untitled. Most of my new songs were for my college sweetheart, with a few exceptions. I once wrote a grunge song for the cover band in which I played, Dirty Bath, entitled “Kill Fred,” a hateful diatribe against an incompetent sound engineer we had at one gig.

Put a gun to his head
Kill Fred
Make him bleed; it’s so red
Kill Fred

It was actually kind of a funny song (in Phrygian mode, which we had recently been studying).

After college, I moved to Seattle, and I kept writing songs, almost exclusively, and perhaps somewhat neurotically, about the college girlfriend who broke my heart in the end. Eventually I started to write about other people, but almost invariably the subjects would revolve around my striking out with girls, though I tried to maintain a modicum of wit about it. One happy exception was “First Dance,” composed for the wedding of Cheryl (my former French teacher from boarding school) and James Cloyd.

At any point since high school, if you had asked me what my next album was going to be called, I would have been able to tell you. After Titled Untitled, I had planned a sprawling quadruple album entitled Our Unique Culture, which would bring me totally up to date with everything worthwhile I’d ever written, or even started to write. In college, I was working on an album called Whatever, which later became Stark Originality. I’m sure there were others album titles I’ve forgotten. At one point I planned a rock album. Then in the early Seattle years, it was a 12-song concept album about the aforementioned college sweetheart entitled, I’ll Never Make the Same Mistake Twice Again (hmmm, bitter much?). Then I thought I’d better just sweep everything I had into one collection and move on to something new; at first I was going to polish and rerecord everything and call the compilation Jot Down a Quick Note, later shortened to Jot Quicky. But in the end, I just burned CD-R’s of whatever half-baked demos I had laying around for friends, christening the 15-song compilation Dumb Songs and Demos.

After a while, somewhere around 2000, I just stopped writing songs. I’d gotten busy composing the string quartet soundtrack to the computer game Arcanum (2001), which took me most of 2000 to complete. I was also writing a lot of choral music for the church choir I was in. I’d continue to have ideas for songs, but I’d never flesh them out or record them. At the time I felt demoralized by indifference, but in retrospect, I was doing almost nothing to get my songs heard by anyone outside the circle of my immediate acquaintances. The last song I wrote in Seattle was “Kiss Locally,” sparked by the way my pal Mike was able to breathe new life into some of my older tunes with killer rock arrangements. (And these arrangements are finally seeing the light of day as 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, available now!)

In retrospect, my last year or two in Seattle was ripe for a pop renaissance. I had finally assembled a perfect little computer-based home studio, my longstanding goal since moving to Seattle, rounded out by the acquisition of the Roland JP-8000 and JV-2080 that I was able to retain from my studio at Sierra when they finally shuttered their Bellevue office. And I was starting to perform regularly in a new band, Subpoenaed Lemur, at the instigation of my dear pal Korby; I don’t know if I can truthfully say we were garnering a following, but we were playing around town quite a bit and having a blast. But at the same time I was in the throes of my master’s degree in composition at UW, while continuing to work full time in the games biz, leaving little time for pop dalliances. It’s an irony of history that just as the last pieces of my home studio fell into place, I had shifted focus almost entirely to doing computer music in Max/MSP. And to this day I feel shame that I never pulled my weight in the band; continued respect to Korby for doing all the booking, preparing all our backing tracks, and running all the rehearsals.

When I decided to move to China in 2004, I had to figure out what to do with my studio gear, and each option seemed like a losing proposition. I could sell it all and lose money and regret it later; I could pay to store it as its value steadily declined; or I could pay to ship everything over to China. In the end I brought it all with me to Shanghai, where it languished in unopened boxes for about 3 years, as I continued to focus on computer music.

I guess what got me writing songs again was a trip to Vietnam with Jutta in October 2007. It sounds silly and cliché, but it was a time of intense emotion, and I didn’t know how else to express what I was feeling than in a song. By the time we returned to Shanghai, “My Heart is a River in Flood” was pretty much sketched out, though it took a few more months to work out some harmonic details and record it. In the meantime I had started writing “EndWar,” which despite its commercial provenance was genuinely the result of good, old fashioned passion and inspiration (working on one game for 3.5 years will do that to you). And “Jessica’s Scissors” ensued shortly from a brazen bar boast; our friend Jessica, an instructor at the Vidal Sassoon academy, was celebrating her birthday at Logo, and I offered to write her a song in exchange for a free haircut, perhaps not the best bargain I’ve ever struck. All of this was enough to finally pull my studio gear out of mothballs and wire everything up.

And so pop songwriting has once again finally come to the fore. I’ve had this idea of doing an album about my experience living in Shanghai ever since I got here, but it’s languished on the back burner for years. But now I’m committed to finishing it in 2009; once I’m back from setting up this installation in Beijing next month, I will be all about Shanghai Travelogue. All the new songs I’ve been writing recently (two are already lined up and ready to record) are going towards that release.

Despite this long history of pop songcraft, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve performed a set of my pop songs in public (excluding the songs we did with Subpoenaed Lemur: “Love on TV,” “Kiss Locally,” “Late Life,” and “Our Newfound Skill”). I did a short ½ hour set on some festival line-up in college, a few tunes at another open mic night in college, 3 more at an open mic night shortly after moving to Seattle at the Art Bar on 2nd…maybe that’s it? (After the Art Bar performance, the host, who I think may have been Ted Narcotic, afterwards commented, “Hmm, you’ve got kind of a Tiny Tim/John Tesh thing going on there, don’t you?”)

So perhaps this Sunday will be my first full gig of original pop songs ever. Took me long enough!

Here’s the set list, with approximate dates of composition. If a song title is highlighted, click on it to listen!

Love on TV* (1997)
Our Newfound Skill (1998)
Late Life* (~1999)
I Tell Her Everything (1994)
Like Vaseline (~1999)
Kiss Locally* (2003)
Cold (2009)
I and My Neurosis (~1999)
First Dance (~1998)
My Heart is a River in Flood (2007)
I’m Not Drinking Alone (When I’m Thinking of You) (~1997)
Jessica’s Scissors (2008)
EndWar (2008)

* included in the brand new rock’n’roll EP 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies

This show will be “quasi-acoustic,” meaning that I’ll be singing and accompanying myself on a keyboard with no computer trickery. It would have been fully acoustic if Yu Yin Tang had a piano. Later this year I’m planning to make the leap to full-fledged synth-pop performances. I always felt ashamed to be performing alone with only sequenced accompaniment (despite the fact that Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails have made quite profitable careers based on this approach). Now that I’ve witnessed the “electronica” revolution of 1999, followed by my discovery of China’s karaoke culture, I think it’s time for me to overcome those old reservations.

Wow, what a long, boring post. Thank you very much for listening. Good night. Enjoy your steak.

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.

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.

eArts wrap-up

I just posted a long overdue overview of the various eArts performances I was able to attend over on GNO. I’ve been honing my blogging skills on that site for over a year, under the strict tutelage of Yao Dajuin and Lawrence Li, though I plan to focus my blogging activities here from here on out.

In particular, I may draw your attention to my arduous, year-long translation of Li Jianhong’s 李剑鸿 account of his December 2006 Japan tour (the last time I plug this link, I almost promise). I’ve also blabbed about Stockhausen and Cardew and videogames and the 2PI Festival, and who knows what all else. I’m sure you will find hours of entertainment.

Or, if you want an alternative account of what went down at eArts, check out Carl Stone’s two part review over at New Music Box!