Act Like You Got Some Sense

As many of you, my faithful readers and spambots, already know, I moved out of my Shanghai apartment last December, and since then I’ve been leading a nomadic existence as an international art hobo, first in the US, then in Kenya, back in Shanghai and Suzhou for a bit, and most recently in Germany. I originally expected that at the end of my sojourns I would ultimately find a new flat in Shanghai, and so I carefully packed away every duvet, cocktail shaker, and gaming console. Circumstances have since conspired, however, such that my next “permanent address” (this phrase always makes me giggle) will be in scenic Somerville, MA, USA, a place I’ve never visited, but about which I hear wonderful things. (No, I am not being deported, though I won’t let that stop me from relentlessly plugging my artwork that was confiscated by the Chinese government earlier this year.)

But in the immortal words of Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.” Experience has taught me that when you make a big move, you have your choice of three options for losing money: lose money by shipping your junk, lose money by storing your junk indefinitely (e.g., to date, the upwards of five grand for storing I don’t even remember what, some old Duran Duran records and a djembe, I think, in Seattle), or lose money by giving your junk away at a small fraction of what you paid for it. Dear friends and spambots, I have chosen the third option. To wit…

Ben Houge’s 35th Annual “New Year, New Address” Fire Sale

I am selling the following items at the following rock bottom prices. I’m attempting to sell things as bundles, to try to get rid of as much stuff as quickly as possible. Prices are negotiable, everything must go!

Oven: 500 RMB
Was over 1000 RMB new. I’d been holding this for some dufus who, two weeks after he told me he’d pick it up, called to say he didn’t want it after all. So if you’re one of the several other folks who inquired, feel free to inquire again; it’s still available! Relatively sizeable for a standalone, tabletop unit, big enough for roasting chickens and ducks (sequentially) or Beef Wellington, but doesn’t take up too much space, also handy for bruschetta, etc.

This oven could be yours!
This oven could be yours!

Box o’ DVD’s: 300 RMB
It’s a medium sized box, mostly full of DVD’s in absolutely no order. Over six years of Shanghai DVD hoarding has resulted in a substantial collection. The catch: it’s all or nothing; if you want ‘em, you gotta buy the whole box. I don’t know what all’s in there, but it skews a bit towards European and Chinese “art films.” That means you take the Antonioni and Bergman along with the Die Hard and Rambo. The Police Story pentalogy and Infernal Affairs trilogy are included, plus I think both Hulk films, House of Flying Daggers (x2, I think), Curse of the Golden Flower, you get the idea… All cinema, no TV series. Act now, and I’ll throw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

These DVD's could be yours!
These DVD

1000 Watt Step Down Voltage Converter (220V to 110V): 250 RMB
Bought this, works fine, except 1000 watts was insufficient for my vast array of US synthesizers and music gear!

This amp and transformer could be yours!
This amp and transformer could be yours!

TV Stand: 200 RMB
Sleek, small, but sturdy, glass and metal, supported a 50” TV (not included) for the past four years, ably and with aplomb. Two open shelves underneath used to house a big amp/receiver, an Xbox 360, an Xbox, a PS2, and a Game Cube (not included).

This TV stand could be yours (glass top not pictured)!
This TV stand could be yours!

One Big Black Bookshelf: 200 RMB
Classic square design, 3 shelves, pretty darned convenient.

This bookshelf could be yours!
This bookshelf could be yours!

Two Big Black Tables: 100 RMB each
Before I met Jutta, I also tried my hand at furniture design: I had these custom made for my studio equipment (who knows when I’ll ever set that all up again, sigh) about five years ago, still in pretty good shape. Very simple design, very versatile, somewhat idiosyncratic design (long and narrow) and a little bit low, designed to be ergonomic for typing and/or playing a keyboard (i.e., elbows at 90 degrees, no awkward wrist bending).

These custom tables could be yours!
These custom tables could be yours!

Black, Wooden, Two-Drawer File Cabinet: 100 RMB
Also my original design. The drawers have runners along the inside, fits standard Ikea hanging folders. The ornate brass-ish handle on the lower drawer has come off, but that’s easily repaired!

This file cabinet could be yours!
This file cabinet could be yours!

White Hanging Drawer Thing: 120 RMB
This was Jutta’s, so you know it’s classy. It’s like got these suspended cloth drawer things, six of them, arranged vertically, about a meter and a half tall, lots of storage taking up relatively little floor space. On wheels! Kinda like this, but with six drawers instead of four, and already assembled!

This suspended drawer thing could be yours!
This suspended drawer thing could be yours!

PS2 + Xbox: 1200 RMB SOLD!
If you want only the Xbox, we can talk, but if you only want the PS2, sorry, chump, you gotta buy both! That’s the deal! Comes with 2 controllers for each and a handful of games (more for Xbox than PS2, including Crimson Skies, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Jade Empire), and 2 Sing Star mics (for the PS2)! The PS2 has a rare and exquisite metallic light blue finish, and the Xbox is some kind of limited edition crystal something or other (i.e., clear case).

Two Squash Rackets and Balls: 200 RMB SOLD!
Nice ones, from Decathlon, barely used (like 3x), to my chagrin.

This squash paraphernalia could be yours!
This squash paraphernalia could be yours!

Johnson Amp: 50 RMB SOLD!
Small and super cheap, but perfect if you’re a beginner guitarist or maybe into chip bending.

Dish Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Big plates, little plates, some bowls, mostly of Ikea provenance.

Glassware Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Water glasses, some odd wine glasses, a bunch of martini glasses, some mugs, a cocktail shaker and strainer.

Cutlery Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Two full sets of cutlery, in fact, including chopsticks and cutting boards and a handy little tray in which to store it all.

Toaster 50 RMB SOLD!
It is green.

Rice Cooker: 50 RMB SOLD!
It cooks rice. Might have two of these, actually.

And I would be a poor salesperson (or a much more successful artist than I am) if I neglected to remind you that I still have an ample supply of my own CD’s available for sale: Radiospace (40 RMB) and 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies (20 RMB), plus my new one, Chingachgook(s) (50 RMB, come on, I made them by hand!). Tell you what: if you buy something, I’ll give you 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies for free!

I have lots of high quality digital art prints for sale as well, the fruits of my art hobo year! Check out Study for Insomnia, Transportation Is Getting a New Look, Shanghai Traces, and 29 Giraffes. You can talk to me or to the galleries that have presented these works; contact me, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Please forward this list to friends!

P.S. Don’t worry about me not having a PS2 or Xbox anymore; I’ve got another set in storage in Seattle. (Um, why?)

P.P.S. I just saw that Wikipedia defines “fire sale” as “the sale of goods at extremely discounted prices, typically when the seller faces bankruptcy or other impending distress.” Apt indeed.

I, Too, Became a Dissident

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

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

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

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

Transportation20100518011250

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transportation20100517184635

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

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

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure

Hey, wow, new video! This piece is a bit quirky and personal, so I should probably fill in a bit of context. But first, imagine that you are viewing this piece on a huge bank of 24 TV screens, the sole light source in a huge, black warehouse, which is how I would ideally like to present it. [Note that you can turn HD on/off in the video below; it will load faster with HD off, but if you’re up for it, turn HD on, click the icon to the right of the play bar to make it full screen, and turn scaling off.]

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

I find myself constantly refuting the notion that art made with computers is somehow cold, impersonal, rational, unfeeling, etc., etc. In general, I refute the idea of absolutes in art, that a work must be, for example, either rational or emotional. In my work, both elements are present, and this one swings perhaps farther than most to the emotional side.

All art (including digital art) has some kind of inspiration, and in this case I was inspired during my trip to St. Paul, MN, last winter by the intricate patterns formed by barren tree branches, and how those patterns would shift with just the slightest change in perspective or movement of the branches. I think the first time I consciously started paying attention to tree branch patterns, I was looking out the window of Famous Dave’s on 7th in St. Paul, where I was having lunch with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two little nieces. Later I noticed that the same kinds of patterns were occurring right outside my brother’s living room window. I spent a lot of time, last winter in St. Paul, sitting in the stuffed chair of my brother’s living room, working on my computer, opposite this window (to the point that the chair came to be referred to as “Uncle Ben’s office”), and as I gazed at the branches outside, I kind of started to identify a bit with this tangled mess of branches and what they might represent.

I was working on a couple of video projects during my two months in St. Paul, notably Shanghai Traces, and also collecting source material for my foolhardedly ambitious plan to produce backdrop videos for my live pop show. I really wanted to capture some of the unique topographical features of winter in St. Paul (i.e., snow), but I could never seem to find just the right combination of meteorological conditions and presence of mind to go out and actually tape them. So in the end I spent the last 10 minutes of my St. Paul visit standing in my brother’s snow-covered front lawn, videotaping those branches as the sun was setting, just before I hugged everyone goodbye and my brother drove me to the airport.

So my new video installation takes those ten minutes and makes them last forever. A lot of still art can be said to freeze a moment in time, but that’s not the same thing as prolonging a moment indefinitely. In a photograph, for example, whatever was happening at the moment when the photograph was taken is not happening anymore; it’s been stopped. But here, the moment is still happening, and it will never stop happening. It’s not the same thing as looping a video segment, either. In a loop, it would happen repeatedly, which is not the same thing as happening continuously. As in Shanghai Traces, I think this is a really good pairing of subject and medium.

How is this miraculous feat accomplished? By using the same techniques I’ve developed to make sound continue indefinitely in videogames over the past thirteen years or so: shuffling, staggering, offsetting, layering. These techniques are some of the most fundamental in my toolbox, but they’re endlessly applicable to a wide range of real-time organizational challenges. In this piece, each of the 24 screens is independently picking a section of the video to play for a certain amount of time, then picking a new section to play, and so on. The duration and position in the original video are not completely random, but constrained by previous behavior, so that the overall distribution of images across all 24 channels is constantly shifting. It’s very similar to the granular synthesis techniques I’ve used in my audio works, mixing together little chunks of a larger sound to kind of homogenize it into a steady texture (see the sustained textures in Radiospace for a good example).

As is quite obvious, the original video was shot without a tripod, which gives the piece a performative element (not that the world needs another flimsy performance video document). The unsteadiness in my hand as I’m holding the camera is the other subject of the piece, creating motion and the subtle changes of perspective that (in addition to passing breezes) animate the primary subject matter. It focuses attention back on the person holding the camera and the minor endurance test of holding the camera still for 10 minutes in below freezing weather. This idea of endurance echoes comments by Richard Karpen and Mike Min (that the drama of a performance arises from the struggle of a person pushing against his or her limitations). In other words, the motion of the camera in the video is a visualization of my own failure to hold it still, despite my best efforts, which you are free to view as a metaphor for the attempt to hold back time itself.

The end result displays all kinds of interesting formal and textural qualities, byproducts of the same behavior being multiplied across 24 screens. The original video was shot at dusk, so there’s a gradual transition from yellow to blue hues; as my piece runs, the various screens are constantly changing their position along the spectrum, forming new groups and contrasts. The motion of the different screens prompts a different organizational tendency, a kind of counterpoint, sometimes seeming to move together, at other times in contrary motion. When screens pop to a new image, a rhythmic texture emerges as well. The eye is drawn to the sudden popping of a screen to a new point in the source video, but because the new image shares the same perspective as the previous one, it can create a kind of paradox; you know something’s changed, but you’re not sure what. The eye and brain are constantly engaged (although on this small video rendering it may be hard to tell; again, think of a big bank of TV monitors), as the viewer is constantly challenged to re-evaluate what’s the same and what’s different as groups form and dissolve.

The audio for the piece is basically just the audio from each of the 24 individual screens mixed together. It happens to include the sounds of several different transportation mechanisms, which nicely underscores the idea of imminent departure. Occasionally you’ll notice the audio cutting out or in at the same time as one of the screens popping to a new image, reinforcing the structure of the piece. I wasn’t completely happy with the sound I captured on the camera’s little built in microphones, so I wanted to filter it a bit, and once I got into filtering, I really liked the mood I got by notching certain harmonic sets of frequencies. But I also really liked the neutrality of the unfiltered sound, and I couldn’t decide if this was too much meddling or not, so in the end I have it both ways, with the notch filters algorithmically fading in and out. The filters’ base frequency changes at longer intervals, which gives the piece a higher level structure and periodically refreshes the ears by establishing a new tonal center. For a public installation, I would revisit the filtering behavior; ideally, if I could present this piece in the big warehouse I’m dreaming of, I’d tune the piece to the room’s resonances.

I have no idea when I’ll actually have a chance to mount this as a public installation. Ideally, it should be displayed on a big bank of 24 TV screens mounted in an 8 x 3 array in a huge, dark, empty space. (If it strikes you that such a bank of TV’s would resemble the banks of monitors displaying airline departure times at an airport, you might be interested to know that in fact I did the first draft of this software while waiting overnight at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, for my connecting flight to Nairobi last January 29, seated across from just such a bank of monitors.) I like the idea of encountering it first from a distance, the images gradually coming into focus as you approach, with the bank of screens generating the only light in a room so big and dark you can’t see the walls. There should be a bench in front of the screens, or pillows, so people can hang out for a while, or maybe some stuffed armchairs, like at my brother’s place!

This is kind of the worst possible combination for a digital installation: expensive, but subtle. Typically, if someone invests in a big, 24-screen video wall, I guess they want something big and flashy, not quiet and contemplative like this. But if anyone would like to be the first to present it, that honor is yours for the taking!

I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Minnesota Houges, with love and gratitude.

My Qanun Lesson

One of the first things to catch my attention when I started boning up on Zanzibar was the Dhow Countries Music Academy. This very hip and active organization was established in 2001 to provide musical education to Zanzibar’s residents and visitors, and to preserve and perpetuate the island’s unique musical traditions.

Principal among these is taarab, the island’s most distinctive musical genre, reflecting Zanzibar’s long history as a crossroads of Arabic, African, and Indian cultures. The standard instrumentation closely resembles an Arabic orchestra, with a choir of violins playing mostly in unison, double bass, oud (a kind of lute, predecessor of the guitar), and qanun (about which more in a bit), tabla, and tambourine, but with the addition of some skin drums from the African mainland, plus a soloist and a choir singing responses.

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman

Jutta got it in her head that she’d like to take a drumming lesson. Though I took a year of djembe lessons back in Seattle, I’m still a lousy djembe player, and I didn’t figure one more hand drumming lesson was going to push me over the edge to proficiency. So I opted instead for an instrument about which I knew next to nothing, and whose name I even had a hard time remembering: the qanun. What follows is my report.

My qanun professor was Rajab Suleiman, who plays qanun with one of Zanzibar’s two most respected taarab ensembles, the Culture Musical Club. He’s also an active collaborator: the Dhow Countries Music Academy has published a Baladna Taarab CD featuring him and Palestinian oud player Habib Shehadeh Hanna, and during the Sauti za Busara festival (which we had timed our visit to catch, a fantastic four days of African music under African skies), he was all over, including a set with Norwegian Sámi artist Mari Boine. He is not only an extremely accomplished musician, but in interacting with him and observing him at a several performances during our stay in Zanzibar, he was friendly and gregarious with everyone he spoke to.

Rajab told me that the qanun was originally from Cairo and is now found all over the Arab world, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey (although he said the Turks have a slightly different variation of the instrument). In one forty-five minute lesson I didn’t expect to learn to play much at all; my objective was to get my hands on the instrument, to get to know how it works and what it can do. After Rajab first set the qanun on my lap he had to leave the room, so I set about counting strings and taking copious notes:

-The qanun would be classified as a zither, with strings stretched parallel across a soundboard and not extending beyond it (as opposed to the harp family, in which the strings run perpendicular to and emanate directly from the soundboard).
-The soundboard is a flat, hollow box about 3 inches thick, in which the sound from the strings resonates, and with (in this case, at least) three decoratively carved holes to let the sound out.
-The soundboard is in the shape of a right trapezoid; the right side runs perpendicular to the bottom of the instrument (as you’re looking down at it), and at the left the instrument tapers from bottom to top as the strings get shorter.
-On the left are the tuning pegs (Rajab said he spends more time tuning than playing). On the right is a bridge.
-The qanun has twenty-six sets of three strings, which span the gamut of three and a half octaves (going up to a re on top, and down to a sol at the bottom). There are seven strings to the octave.
-Most strings on the instrument I played were nylon, except the lowest four sets, which were metal.
-For each set of three strings, on the left near the tuning pegs, are five metal switches. These allow the player to effectively shorten the length of each set of strings to raise the pitch and obtain different scales. If all switches are off, the pitch is a double flat (i.e., unison with the string below it).
-As Rajab pointed out to me, the five switches per string allow the instrument to be tuned to Arabic scales involving quarter tones.

Strings are plucked or strummed with the fingers of both hands. The player attaches a plectrum to each forefinger, but all fingers can be used. The right hand should move only up and down, parallel to the bridge, but the left hand should move left and right as well, following the length of the strings.

I told Rajab about my musical background, and he suggested I just poke around a bit on the thing and try to play something. He had tuned the qanun to a major scale, so I started picking out Burt Bacharach’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” which has perhaps a slightly ambitious range for a first time player. When he saw I was merely hunting around for notes, he reigned me in to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and after a bit we moved on to the traditional East African tune “Malaika (Angel)” (I first heard this tune when I recorded the Mungano National Choir of Kenya’s performance at St. Olaf College in 1996 or so, but I have no idea if it’s Kenyan or Tanzanian or what, and I don’t care to enter the debate; we’ve picked up on a bit of Kenya/Tanzania rivalry during our travels).

Towards the end of my lesson, Rajab asked if I’d like to just hear what the thing could do, which is what I was hoping for, and he let her rip. Melodies doubled at the octave, chords, arpeggiated patterns, he was all over the soundboard, and the density of sound was really amazing. Tremolos were very effective, plucking the same set of strings repeatedly with one or more fingers. To bend tones he would occasionally push down on the string on the far side of the bridge, similar to how Chinese guzheng players bend their tones. I asked if he ever played harmonics on the strings, and he said seldom.

I was amazed to realize that all of the metal tuning switches could be manipulated on the fly with great facility, which means the qanun is not just a diatonic instrument, but really should be considered to have thirty-five tones per octave (six tones per string, although some are enharmonics), all readily accessible. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; this is not so different from what Western harpists, for example, do with their pedals. But to see the agility with which he flicked those switches while playing, not only to obtain notes out of the diatonic scale, but also flicking back and forth for trills, was really breathtaking.

An excellent way to spend an afternoon, at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, along the waterfront in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, learning a thing or two about Zanzibari music. In my book, that’s the kind of thing that makes a good vacation!

Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!
Qanun master Rajab Suleiman in action!

Shanghai Traces

My newest video piece, Shanghai Traces, is just finishing its 7+ week run at OV Gallery in Shanghai.

It was part of the Make Over show, curated by OV’s Rebecca Catching as a response to the remarkable face lift that Shanghai has been undergoing for many months in anticipation of hosting the World Expo this year. Construction has been even more madcap than usual, with new subway lines being built, streets being repaved, and housing blocks being repainted several lanes deep (typically dingy bricks painted brick red, with the gaps between them painted caulk white). The Shanghai apartment I vacated last December was 23 floors up, more or less just across the river from the manic construction at the Expo grounds, and the dust that accumulated was amazing. I was considering bottling it and selling it, like Mount St. Helens ash.

Unfortunately, I managed to miss the entire Make Over show, as I was traveling first in the USA, then in Kenya (more on that later), but it seems to have been pretty well received; I’ll try to get some press up here soon. For those who, like me, were unable to check it out in person, here’s a sample rendering of my piece:

It’s a real-time, algorithmic (or, if you prefer, generative) video running continuously in Jitter on a computer screen in the gallery, which means that this video represents a unique configuration of images that will never occur again. I find the topic particularly well-suited to the medium of real-time video, as this is the way people move through a city, constantly coming and going; you never know who you’re going to bump into on the sidewalk. It’s a never ending process. The same thing’s happening in the video: images fall in endless variation, their traces mingle, and then they disappear.

Here’s the blurb I wrote for the show catalogue:

Perhaps to a greater extent than most cities, many of Shanghai’s residents are just passing through. From the poorest migrant worker to the flushest CEO, people come from all over seeking opportunity, adventure, and fortune. Shanghai Traces is a meditation on the manner in which these passing characters leave their mark on the city. The tumbling images are cobbled together algorithmically in real-time, mirroring the interactions of the city’s inhabitants in ever-changing patterns and configurations. Some stay, many move on, but every life leaves a trace, however fleeting.

My video ran as a companion piece to furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs’s sculpture Paved Landscape. She conducted a series of interviews with street vendors who are being evicted from the city center during the Expo as part of the city’s beautification plan, and brought home an assortment of their brightly colored wares. She photographed each item for me to incorporate into my video, and then she encased them in resin and set the resin in a concrete shell with a plant inset. Here’s a photo:

Jutta Friedrichs's Paved Landscape
Jutta Friedrichs's Paved Landscape

She also compiled a book describing the project and collecting the interviews she conducted. (Contrary to what That’s Shanghai reported, that part of the project was hers, not mine.)

Shanghai Traces exemplifies a lot of the ideas I’ve been using in my audio work, in videogames as well as installations. The computer is selecting parameters to keep things unpredictable, but items aren’t falling completely randomly; rather, you can notice that certain parts of the screen develop their own rhythms, sometimes speeding up or slowing down. There’s a list with a range of values for each item; you’ll notice that some items never change color, or that some items tend to be consistently bigger than others.

In addition to the video itself, I also made some limited edition, hi-res prints (88.9 cm x 66.7 cm), captured from the video and printed on archival paper, which are available for purchase from OV Gallery. They make excellent gifts. Here are two examples:

Shanghai Traces 2010119121916
Shanghai Traces 2010119121916
Shanghai Traces 2010119120335
Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

See some more on my Flickr feed!

The piece was originally conceived as a video only piece; no sound. I think in this silent form it works very well in a gallery setting, especially in a group show. After certain past experiences, I’ve gotten very picky about sound in galleries where other pieces are present. Nonetheless, when I started thinking about posting the video online, I decided to add an audio component, so folks wouldn’t waste time wondering what was wrong with the sound instead of just watching. So I implemented a simple idea I’ve been wanting to play with for a long time: from a stream of speech, little excerpts are plucked out and kind of frozen in time, suspended and fading out. In this case the stream of speech is a continuous babble of fragments chosen statistically from recordings of the interviews Jutta conducted. There are 30 layers of this behavior going on at once, creating a nice, ambient din. I like the way the delay time of the little frozen fragments matches the rate at which the vendor objects are falling down the screen. Further, the frozen bits sometimes take on a mechanical quality, evoking the jackhammers that have been enthusiastically tearing up the streets as part of the city’s renewal.

Like any good project, this one leaves me with lots of ideas for further work. I love the density of this piece, but after this experience I’m really curious to do some smaller scale studies, to really get into details of maybe just pairs of objects, and to finely hone the combinations of color and movement (which was kind of the opposite of the objective here). It would also be fun to contrast different types of behavior as part of a larger piece, perhaps spread across multiple video screens.

Big thanks to Rebecca for instigating this exhibition and inviting Jutta and I to participate! Thanks also to Jutta for being a sounding board for ideas, and for helping with the source photographs and audio!

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?

please briefly describe the future of electronic music

I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.

The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.

I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)

I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!

In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.

1. your definition to electronic music?

I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.

2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?

Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.

“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.

I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music

Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.

I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.

4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.

I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.

5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.

I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.

Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.

My Mom’s Ghanaian Peanut Sauce Recipe

Last Wednesday, at the birthday barbecue of Archie Hamilton, head honcho of Split Works (the concert promotion agency that has brought Sonic Youth, Handsome Furs, Battles, and many other fine ensembles to Shanghai), I was boasting to Sean Leow, head honcho of NeoCha (hip Chinese social networking hub), about the fantastic Ghanaian peanut sauce I had made the night before. Shortly afterwards, I made a lunge for a chicken wing and sprained my ankle. Archie set me up with cushions on the pavement, and everyone started bringing me drinks and chocolate cake out of sympathy. It was awesome. I saw a doctor and had an X-ray taken, and thankfully nothing’s broken, but I’ve got to take it easy for a while. The doctor prescribed the RICE treatment: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Nice mnemonic!

Anyway, before I took a dive, I promised Sean the recipe. Here it is as I received it from my mom, who got it from neighbors when my folks were living in the remote village of Gbintiri, in Konkomba country, northern Ghana in the late 90’s.

African Peanut Butter Sauce

Brown:
1/2 c. onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. oil

Mix separately and add:
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup water
1 bouillon cube
2 Tbs. tomato paste or 2 chopped tomatoes

Gradually add until the sauce is the consistency desired:
2-3 cups water
Salt, pepper, hot pepper to taste

Add:
Cooked beef, pork, or chicken, and simmer in sauce.

Serve over rice.

Here are the bachelor addendums I’ve developed over the years:
–I found Adams natural peanut butter to be ideal, close in consistency to the ground peanuts used in the traditional recipe, none of those nasty Skippy additives and emulsifiers.
–I put fresh chili peppers in with the onions and garlic and oil in the first step. Four of those little red Chinese peppers usually work for me. Sometimes I skip the garlic, in fact.
–I usually add meat after the onions have started to brown; yeah, I know, this means it doesn’t brown as nicely, but it’s less hassle than browning the meat first, then taking it out of the pan, then doing the onions, garlic, and peppers, and adding the meat back later.
–I would never use tomato paste instead of fresh tomatoes, but sometimes in arid northern Ghana, fresh tomatoes aren’t available.
–Brown rice works just as well as white rice.
–For me the ideal beverage accompaniment is bottled Guinness (not one of those fancy nitrogen-infused cans), which is widely available in Africa.

There ya go! Easy, yummy, nutritious, cheap. This was one of the five bachelor dishes I would rotate back in Seattle, along with burritos, beans and rice, creamed tuna on toast, and pasta with marinara sauce. Lemme know if you need those recipes. Actually, I can’t do burritos as efficiently in China, but the others are still in pretty heavy rotation.

BTW, my dad likes to taunt wild hyenas.

My parents are so badass!

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!