Yan Jun with Edward Sanderson
An interview with Yan Jun, by Edward Sanderson, exploring the making of the podcast for Counterflows At Home, “It’s Not Music”, and Yan’s relationship with Beijing’s underground music and art scenes. Expanding on his collaborations, work, processes and ideas behind his thinking, the interview offers another window into Yan Jun’s multi-faceted life and practice.
Yan Jun is musician and poet, born in Lanzhou in 1973 and currently based in Beijing. His work transcends the boundaries between improvised music, experimental music, field recording, performance, organising and writing. Alongside performing in venues, he also runs a project called Living Room Tour, where goes to audience’s homes to play with the environment and what else available in the room.
Edward Sanderson (李蔼德) is an art critic and curator, and PhD Candidate at Hong Kong Baptist University Academy of Visual Arts. His research and writing focus on sound art and experimental music in Mainland China and Hong Kong.
How did you find the process of making this audio piece?
I had fun producing it! Especially working with Alannah Chance, a professional producer. They did a great job putting everything together. If I was to compose this on my own, it would be much more wild and loose, and too abstract to be informative – you know I’m into “unknown and uncertain” very much.
Right! What does “unknown and uncertain” mean for you?
For myself there are two kind of situations about creating something. One I would judge as: this performance was fine – but not extraordinary; this recording is rough – but I like its quality; this I should improve here and there… Another situation involves great confusion, and it sometimes makes me sad and pains me, because I don’t know where I am, I don’t know what I have done, and there is no way to improve because it definitely has a life of its own, independent of mine. I have had more and more of the latter situations in recent years. I know it could be awful, maybe just result in a piece of garbage, but I can’t stop myself from going this way again and again.
The audio piece is very documentary-like. Did your early years working as a journalist in your hometown of Lanzhou in the 1990s influence your approach to this piece?
Yes, I think so. I was not a good journalist during that job. But over the years I have written many articles on Chinese underground rock. Some were reviews, some were reports. Many of them were in a so-called rock style. or gonzo style. I believed that I should only write what was in my life and keep no distance from it. But slowly I tried to be more professional or objective – but finally this bored me too much.
Who were you writing for? Were they local publications, or did they reach a national audience?
Ah! I wrote for any printing publication who needed a text about music. Rock magazines, fanzines, local newspapers, scholarly journals, all over the nation… I calculated it was nearly two-hundred papers and magazines in the end.
Was it typical for a second-tier city like Lanzhou to have an active music scene at that time? Were there other cities, other than the obvious places like Beijing and Shanghai, that had scenes like the one in Lanzhou? Were you in contact with them?
No, there were so few things happening in Lanzhou in the 1990s. There was a small circle of musicians consisting of several even smaller circles that hated each other. There were very few concerts. Punks or the punk attitude arose later in the ‘90s so it still seems vivid. But Lanzhou was still a desert compared to the young people’s thirsty bodies. In most cases any concert in this level of city in the late ‘90s was an explosion – or a disaster if you looked through another lens.
Beijing was the almighty centre, of course. It’s funny but there was a conflict between mainstream Beijing rockers and underground rockers in the provinces. I might have provoked that a little as I was one of the so-called ‘90s underground scene, with a strong mind that went against established figures and bourgeois culture/aesthetics. So in my articles I was not very polite to the mainstream “new music”, while advocating the raw, wild, punk-influenced stuff.
A few years ago the curator Dong Bingfeng put on an exhibition about the city of Shenyang’s underground music scene. Shenyang is a city similar to Lanzhou but in the North-East of China, and the music scene experience was very similar: Both cities were struggling with the pain of industrial decline; there were similar angry young people. Sometimes they would be working on instinct in a very ethical way, rather than being directly political.
I was one of several rock critics in China who connected to everybody, as far as I know. Letters and demos were posted to me. I made copies of them, then sent them to others… The Shenyang guys once visited Lanzhou for a big concert, which I was meant to organize but I failed to fulfil in the end. That was supposed to be a national meeting of the music underground. But anyway, we still printed 5000 copies of a booklet for that.
The last time we saw each other in person was in a subway station as I was transiting through Beijing on my way back to the UK. That was February 2020, a few weeks after Spring Festival when the city of Wuhan had gone into lockdown and COVID had become our everyday reality. In China there were only a few months, February, March, and April, when lockdowns happened. During the period when people were unable to gather for events, some in China experimented with live-streaming performances, although not many found it a particularly satisfying medium. Did you feel the need to start doing online performances at all?
During that time I organised two events with [musician and organiser] Zhu Wenbo, but they weren’t live-streamed. One was Miji concert 65. That was just us performing separate solos at each of our homes. We couldn’t have an audience, so I simply told anyone who was interested to take a rest at the same time. Another one was Miji concert 66, which took place over two months. We invited many artists to compose something “anyone can play” for the audience, and we just let them perform these scores at home, and if they wished they could send us the results which we published on the Sub Jam Bandcamp page.
These were my reactions to this non-physical situation. but they were not really “virtual”. I have also participated in some online works and live-streaming events. For both I tried to deal with the media involved: for instance, I worked with a film director for the Living Room Tour stream for the Beijing Fringe Festival; for the Practice streams I used the real-time comments as lyrics and guides; the atmosphere of absence and distance showed up in my videos “In A Lift” for the TUSK Festival, and “Shadow” for Folkteatern festival, etc.
Being with audience is the fundamental part of any performance, the prototype of performances must include the audience. But with technology and media we have a different reality that allows us to review this prototype. The camera can do what human eyes can not do. In my dreams my visions are camera-ised as well. I don’t want to pretend that “We are together!” No! We are together only in distance and through media.
I don’t like to think of streaming as a replacement for live performance, it’s something with its own qualities, it’s a challenge. As I said just now, I have played with some of these challenges since the lock down but it’s not easy. And, by the way, I think taking time and doing nothing is also good. Why should we always be so active and useful?
Am I right in thinking that after April a lot of things got back to normal pretty quickly, including the reopening of performance venues for events? Since the very beginning of COVID, how has it affected your daily life and performance life? How about for the experimental scene in China generally?
There have been many events in other cities, yes. But Beijing is stricter, so we had few events until later on in 2020. I don’t feel a big difference for the experimental scene because there were so few things around us anyway. Since late 2020, I feel that there have been more young artists doing this and that in places like Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and Shanghai. I think there must be more in other places too.
For myself… I spent a lot of time on listening to black metal. And TV and movies about zombies and horror. I have enjoyed depression for a few months as well. I’m also addicted to my smartphone and so my eyesight is getting worse. I stay at home and in the studio for most of the time, and it’s nice.
In the audio piece for Counterflows you talk about “low”, and “boring” music as being “hardcore”. I guess you’re not talking about hardcore punk necessarily, but you are very specific about this word. So what you do mean by “hardcore” here, in the context of experimental music in China?
Yes, it’s true it’s not about hardcore punk. I used “hardcore” as being extreme and no limit. You have to be strong and tough to do boring art. And it’s offensive to some audiences and colleagues. In China most people think the words “experimental” and “avant-garde” equals to “expressional” – or actually, “romanticism”. Experimental music has been understood as another kind of rock ‘n’ roll or free jazz or chamber music by most consumers around the world. Therefore, if you are travelling the opposite way from this you might be seen as a stupid amateur or a fraud.
When you were talking to Wenbo on the recording, you commented that being in a band in China provides a fertile space for experimental music to develop? Why do you think that is? Why not from the art world, for instance?
I don’t know… in Indonesia so many of the noisers, “noise makers” or “noise artists”, and musicians are from the art scene. Why not China? I don’t know. There is a great gap between the art and music scenes. Maybe now it is better than before, but it’s still separated. I guess most of the visual artists listen to indie rock and singer-songwriters, if not old love songs and classical music. Most musicians don’t go to exhibitions. Maybe it’s easy for rockers to rebel from rock; but difficult for artists to give up their visual-based thinking? But it will be different in the future. Sun Yizhou, the youngest of us musicians, started when he was at an art high school. Ake, who I talk to in the audio piece, is connected to the art scene. We have more audience from other backgrounds than music lovers these days.
Do you agree with what Ake says in the recording that the scene is still pretty good in Beijing? What do you think she means by that? Are there other parts of China where experimental music is also taking place, or even doing well?
No. Maybe good around her neighbourhood because she lives in the golden area of youth culture. For me that wouldn’t be enough, even if I lived there too. I want Alvin Lucier and Mattin to live next door, and for there are twenty festivals a week! That’s what humans deserve! But there are many young musicians doing the things I mentioned. On March 20th I will join some Wuhan and Chongqing musicians at UFO Space in Beijing. That should be fun.
I wanted to ask about your approach to venues. The Miji Concerts that you mentioned above took place pretty much every month and replaced the famous Waterland Kwanyin events that you organised most Tuesdays from 2005 to 2010, at the (now defunct) 2Kolegas venue in Beijing. Miji began in 2011 as a series of multi-day festival events at the same venue, before moving to various other venues around Beijing (most of which are also now defunct), and then for the last few years you have hosted them in your own studio in an apartment building on the East side of Beijing. In the past foreign artists passed through Beijing on a regular basis and the Miji Concerts were often organised around their visits. However, the most recent Miji was in October of last year. Have you not organised putting on another Miji since there have been fewer visitors due to COVID, or for other reasons?
Waterland Kwanyin was organised with friends; although I was the one in front it was really a collective thing. Some audience members became part of this collective as designers, artists, organisers, or just because they came regularly. There was this old-school collective community atmosphere about it. Miji is less warm, less family, less spectrum, less love – but more focused on language and the formation of music, as it’s the vital interface of life. So Miji follows some simple motives: “Hi guys! Do you have a new idea to experiment?” “Hi my friend’s friend! Welcome and we can do something together…” It is no longer an everyday-carnival, but something realistically do-able. And visitors are always a reason; that’s how we do things all around the world when friends come from afar. In 2020 (and till now) the pandemic changed the pace of most things, but I’m thinking of organising the next Miji concert in late March.
You have also run an irregular series of events, the Living Room Tours, for which you get yourself and other musicians invited to someone’s home to perform in their private space. What do you think are the changes between performing in a regular venue, versus performing in your studio for Miji, or performing in the homes of people for the Living Room Tours? What are the different possibilities for you in each of those places?
Events held in my studio are much more like at a venue. In most cases, I empty the room before concerts. The difference is only that I’m more familiar with that space. The events I hold at people’s homes ask the question: “What is music?” What if we cut everything out, and only the absolutely necessary elements are left? Music needs time and space, performer and participators – that’s all. So I would say music happens in any place, on any condition, as long as there are these four elements. Even then some of it could be replaced as an “absentee”.
To make a concert happen is always a collaboration. It’s always an art form on the social level. Going to other people’s homes is fantastically amazing for me – always! Going to different venues always reveals the policies, economics, the local customs, and personalities. Have you been in the National Opera House in Beijing? It’s not a venue – it’s a gigantic political symbol! Even people who work there are strictly selected to make sure they all look like politicians…
I love venues where people take care of them. I don’t like dusty cables and stinky rugs. I hate arrogant, unprofessional sound men, or the indifferent manner of staff. A room has its own life, and sometimes you have to deal with a tragically abused room. Maybe that’s ok for an improviser, but I feel sad for such a situation where we are all involved.
Sub Jam is your label, and you first used this name for a zine you produced when you were still living in Lanzhou in 1998. Then you set it up as your label in 2000. Since then, it has become one of the most important publishers of experimental music in China. To begin with you were publishing collections of your own writings, then for a long period you produced CDs of recordings by a whole shopping list of Chinese and foreign artists. A few years ago, I remember you told me you would stop publishing CDs and focus more on books again, which you did for a while. But this year you seem to have changed again and have published a vinyl record for the first time. Why all the changes?
This label is never going as I wished; I always feel I’m wrong. But that’s always the way, and now I feel to be wrong is also acceptable. I wanted to do a label with a sharp concept, a unified design, a clear aesthetic, and so on. But as my thoughts and tastes change, the label also changes. There was a time when I believed Sub Jam was not my own creation but a collective work (as it was). But I wasn’t—and still am not—good at dealing with teamwork or the collective life. Which is a real contradiction!
A lot of mess happens when a label becomes a social experiment, and the initiator is not capable. From 2004 till 2010 I organised about 250 concerts and some festivals. Most of them were collective activities. and most of them were under the name of Sub Jam, plus there were the publications… There was totally no structure, no plan, no logic, no money, and our personal lives also mixed in. Of course, before that I also organised things, but then it was part of an even less organised underground rock scene. So the main challenges were how to work with others and how to live with others. I don’t mean about living together in the same house, but what if ten friends see each other every two or five days, and they have to discuss a thirty-act festival while half of them were stoned? Later on, I think I learned to understand what was wrong with me during that period, but everything has to move on. Then I made a sharp turn in both my social life and music. Now it’s easier. I just slow down and do whatever is sparking in my mind.
I was actually surprised that you started releasing on vinyl as it seems be a strong contrast to the fast-moving, DIY approach that I associated with Sub Jam. When vinyl is involved, it seems to me that this material object holds a weight of “cultural value”.
“oh my God, and yours” by Toshimaru Nakamura and myself is indeed the first vinyl on Sub Jam. But the whole thing is an experiment in materials. The plastic mirrored cover is an important part of the package as a whole artwork. The cover was designed by the artist Zhang Ding. I’ve known him since 2002, when he came from Lanzhou to Beijing with a group of his friends for the Midi Festival during which I was collaborating with the Lanzhou Noise Association. Then when I visited Shanghai I would sometimes stay at his place. I curated one of his events and performed at another one, and I have written articles about his work as well. So I know his work quite well. He designs his own posters, and he uses typefaces in art works. I like the way he uses simple and direct fonts. I have to say though that good designers always talk too much. I don’t need a good designer; I need a designer who lets things be. I want something less about expression, but is still intense. So we ended up with this mirror.
Why did you decide on vinyl and not cassettes, for example, which have become quite popular in China recently?
Different music needs suitable media to present it – you can’t produce a lot of 1.5kHz noise on vinyl or cassette for instance. You always have a particular feeling or response depending on the format used. In the future I will produce some cassettes, and also more CDs, I just don’t want to plan too much. But, for sure, I wanted to make something difficult this time: difficult to produce, something that takes time, where I had to experiment with the materials and touch them again and again. I just wanted to be slow and fully occupied with this object. In the end Sub Jam has no stable aesthetics, unfortunately – I have already given up on that ideal.
- Chinese cities are often informally divided into four tiers with Beijing and a few others in tier 1, but there’s no strict definition for each tier
- “Practice” was a series of live-streams curated by Beijing-based musicians Zhao Cong and Zhu Wenbo, featuring musicians from around China and abroad “practicing” in their homes. A video of Yan Jun’s Practice can be found here