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It’s Not Music

The artist Yan Jun guides us through the ‘non music’ scene in Beijing, starting from the four walls of his studio and travelling out to a busy underpass and a local restaurant to meet artists in the city to talk about what non music means to them.  Yan noticed things starting to happen a few years ago, when a group of artists in the city began making performances which defied easy categorisation. These could take the form of one person having a conversation with their mum on the phone or an audience member disassembling a mandolin. In this podcast we hear Yan’s personal journey through the idea of non music as well as several artists and promoters who are at the centre of it, including Li Qing, the drummer in indie rock band Carsick cars, the promoter, musician and label boss Zhu Wenbo and outsider artist Ake, who taught herself violin after finding it in a local junk store.

The podcast was produced by: Alannah Chance

Artists featured in the podcast:

Zhu wenbo
Zhu wenbo is involved in many different music projects. He uses clarinet, saxophone, microphone, speaker, recorder, percussion and more, doing compositions, improvisations, events and publications focus on “music unlike music”.

Li qing
Her official bio for miji concert is “a shonen” (a youngster). She is member of carsick cars, snapline, soviet pop and rat “the spy” 51. She is also an active member of Beijing based avant-garde music group “impro committee”.

Ake
Born in Haikou, involved into words, sound, theatre and performing art.



Transcript of Podcast

YAN JUN: If you asked me what is hardcore, I would say it’s being boring

[Sounds of the studio]

I have spent a lot of time in my flat and studio this year. I have learnt the tiny sounds around all corners of my flat. The crunchy wooden floor. The clock. The relief valve on the water pipe. And also my hair rubbing the pillow.  There are so many things that go through my mind in this room. If time is the ultimate illusion of human beings, I wonder if it’s worn me down as the shoes did to the floor?

At the beginning of the pandemic I was hesitating between two books, one is Heidegger’s Being and Time and the other one was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The plan was, if I was infected and sent to a quarantine cell, I’d bring a big book to read. But neither of them were used.

Instead, I started listening to black metal and watching zombie movies. somehow they share the same kind of dry, harsh noise in the throat.

[Sounds of the black metal style vocals]

I think the reason I started to watch zombie movies, started from this deep feeling of depression. All the time you read the news of people suffering in wuhan and that pushed me to think, what is humanity, what is life. It’s not that solid

[MUSIC: Yan Jun – No Title]

If I don’t tell them most people would say this is an electronic sound or it’s an ocean sound.  Normally you don’t put your ear to someone’s mouth.  You go to the details of human and you find that human is something strange to you

I started to use this term Non Music a few years ago. I always use discogs. There’s this genre called ‘non music’ and it’s my favourite one

[Sounds of wasp chewing]

It’s mostly field recording or some weird sound or some interviews

[Shorty Petterstein – drums in the typewriter]

You always need a name to talk about something but my music is always, I mean sometimes, strange, sometimes quiet. Quiet but not elegant! It’s not like John Cage, it’s not like the classical avant-garde music so people think sorry, it’s just not Music. Then they don’t expect too much from me as my music is not music, it’s just open

[MUSIC: Yan Jun – 51.28]

I can’t say when this scene exactly started in Beijing. But around 2017 it seems to have become a common agreement that we are free to do anything in music. It could be untrained. It could be body movements without sound. It could be imaginary sounds.

[MUSIC: Zhu Wenbo – Music for Mandolins]

It could be letting an audience member disassemble a mandolin. There are some influences from performing art or conceptual art but most of us know little about that. Mostly quiet. Because before the understanding of being radical was big noise, but then you realise ok the radical could be the ordinary everyday life i think. We’re not heroes, so we don’t make hero music.

[MUSIC: Li Qing – Dark Matter (unreleased)]

15 years ago I met Li Qing when she was a rocker, there was a scene called No Beijing so she was in Carsick Cars

[MUSIC: Carsick Card – Hong Nan Hai]

I think their concert was my last rock n roll concert I organised, before that I was mainly a rock critic and organiser. And I had already started to make experimental concerts and also my own music. Several musicians in this no beijing scene, they did a lot of experimenting in their bands. Slowly I saw Li Qing and these people changing and doing more and more different things. What’s interesting about Li Qing is that she plays rock music, experimental music and also she works for a major label, but non of this is contradictory for her.

After 15 years of making music I wanted to know how music has changed her attitude over the years… We went to eat at a halal restaurant near her place in Beijing to talk..

One thing that’s interesting to me, is that almost all my music colleagues in Beijing have rock bands on the one hand, while making such radical music on the other. But i also can’t explain why I fell in love with black metal at the age of 47.

[Sounds of the Restaurant]

LI QING: when it comes to how I make experimental music, my method is to put myself into that world, Sometimes I don’t do anything else, I just concentrate on my music. I have been doing it for so long, that I keep making experimental music in this way and truly make progress in this direction. It’s like …I don’t know. Maybe I come up with some words like “What you see is what you get.” or “Mountains are seen as mountains” or something like that.

YAN JUN: The first time I met her she was a drummer and later I found her playing guitar and sanxian, it’s a traditional three-string instrument. I think the concert we played at someone’s home, she played sanxian on the roof

After our meal we headed to her rehearsal room and I asked her if she has trouble managing  these different styles..all these different rules in her musical life

[Sounds of the rehearsal room]

LI QING: I am not sure if it’s just because that’s how my mind works. Or if I like one thing, and I truly like it, I just explore it.  But I find it’s more like two different ways of thinking. I feel like that, for me, making rock & roll music is composition, because it ends up as a song, whether it lasts 20 minutes like the band CAN does, or just a 3-minute-long song, …or even like hardcore songs, which are only a minute or a few seconds. But they are still songs, with their own rules. Yet for experimental music, it’s totally like opening my heart and body, fusing myself with the time and space, until everything becomes one.

YAN JUN: Li Qing was born in 1982 she’s 9 years younger than me, but in the 90s we shared same experience of discovering music, we called that time ‘daiko’ generation, dakou is ‘cut off’, during that time the 5 major record companies they had a lot of CDs and cassettes they don’t want anymore, they try to destroy them and then send them to China, we pick them up in the garbage. So during the Daiko age you find everything, you find all different kind of music in one night, you find Metallica, you find Bon Jovi, you find Sex Pistols and Philip Glass in one night, a small history.

LI QING: In China, the whole history of music development has been compressed, frankly. Before the 1980s, most music fans had very limited access to different styles of music. Yet shortly after the cut-off age, the internet arrived, and suddenly we were exposed to lots of miscellaneous music styles. I could scan through lots of these different music styles within a very short period of time, and I listened as much as I could, and as a result I got into the habit of trying different musical styles.

[MUSIC: Li Qing – Dark Matter (unreleased)]

YAN JUN: One thing that I find interesting in that almost all my music colleagues in Bejing have rock bands on the one hand while creating such radical music on the other. A few years ago myself and a friend called Zhu Wenbo compiled the cassette called “There Is No Music From China” – partly it’s a joke, partly we were trying to find something called ‘No Music’. Actually Zhu Wenbo started off his music career as a kind of alternative rock band 14 years ago from a bar called D22, after that closed there was a new bar called XP club. Zhu organised a lot of concerts and he developed his experimental music

[Sounds Walking through the tunnel underpass]

I met Zhu Wenbo for a walk in an underpass tunnel under the 3rd ring road of Beijing. That’s a place where he organised concerts. I always remember the white lights in the tunnel. I always remember the light. It was too light. Like a UFO. We walked with his dog Ake, you will hear the sound of a small bell from his dog’s neck

[Sounds of the tunnel underpass and bell]

YAN JUN: Let’s start from this underpass, so how did you start then?

ZHU: I think it’s late 2014, that year I moved to this neighbourhood. That day I walked past this underpass, I found the sound very good and ihe first thing I thought about at that time, is that I could practise saxophone here. And then in 2015 the club I organise concerts, XP was closed in the summer, so in the summer I started to organise concerts here. i think I’m ready to try to play in some real acoustic place, not an electric place. So that is it

YAN JUN: So was D22 the place where you start your music career?

ZHU WENBO: Yes

YAN JUN: So you found your first band there, which one?

ZHU WENBO: Yes, name is fat city

[MUSIC: Fat City – Experience]

YAN: so from the beginning Fat City was not a typical rock band

ZHU WENBO: Yes, we were just two people. I play keyboard and he played guitar and drums

YAN: So at D22 you could do anything or are there any rules for you guys?

ZHU WENBO: I think we are not the sort of people that want to be naked on stage! So do anything you want hmmmm… but if you just play instruments you could do anything you want. I think if I tell them that tonight I want to play on the 2nd floor they will say ok you could, I’ve never tried that but it’s no problem.

YAN JUN: so later at XP club you tried more things, you and friends you guys tried a lot of really different form of music or different form of performance

ZHU WENBO: yeah i think in XP days our brain really expanded a lot. We know more things. We know that you don’t need to always play on stage, you could play anywhere. You not need to play very loud. You don’t always need to use a PA system, you could play in the audience, you could play outside of the club

YAN JUN: so did you start your experimental music in XP?

ZHU WENBO: i think this question comes back to what is experimental music, but it is a big question.

YAN JUN: But now, recently in the last two years, in some of your work, there is almost nothing, no sound, no development, very simple, very quiet or you could say very radical

[MUSIC: Zhu Wenbo – Music for Mandolins, composed by zhu wenbo; performed by zhu wenbo and john wilton unreleased]

YAN JUN: When did you start making music which didn’t sound like music?

ZHU WENBO: I think it is 2018

YAN JUN: What about your band? Karoru Abe No Future? Is this also not like music?

ZHU WENBO: I think it’s not like rock music

YAN JUN: So it’s rock and rock and roll which sounds like not rock?

ZHU WENBO: Yeah, it’s between experimental music and experimental rock

[MUSIC: Karoru Abe No Future – Sugar (live at Cry in Public, unreleased)]

YAN JUN: It’s also very simple. Can you play anything more complicated, more skilful

ZHU WENBO: I need to practise. But sometimes I don’t want! Because I like simple music! Most bands, the rock bands I like, they are simple. Some hifi fans search for the high quality sound but it is not the only way.  Especially in China people think that is the only way. If not you are not real making music. But now I think some people are changing their attitude.

YAN JUN: It’s true that people are changing their attitude, there are more unprofessional musicians. For example Ake, Ake is different than most of my friends in Bejing, she has no rock band. Actually she start from writing poetry. In 2016 I realise we have a new face on the stage, she has never learnt how to play an instrument. She’s kind of a pure outsider musician.

[MUSIC: Ake – EE Set 1 (live performance)]

I meet Ake in the Wujin Cafe – which is run by artists. It’s a very small room in a small, traditional yard in the traditional Hutong area, Hutong means small lanes. More than a year ago she started to organise small concerts. Once I performed in the yard, during some quiet moments I heard the pigeon wings fluttering in the air above me.

[MUSIC: Yan Jun and Liu Lu – live performance at Wujin cafe]

YAN:  How did you start to make music and why

AKE: Before I was writing poems and somehow I feel I don’t understand, because people talk about the rhythm of the poem and I never understand this. Then I came to Beijing and I began to know those shows, performance music, I went to the event in XP and I think maybe I can find the rhythm of the poem in those kinds of music. And somehow I accidentally got a violin, it was very cheap in a rubbish place, when I played it for the first time the sounds scared me, so I put it aside for a time, one year or two years, I didn’t touch it. But then there was a chance, Zhu invited me to do something

[MUSIC: Ake Vio (live performance)]

AKE: The poem was about time. I want to know about time so i do music.

YAN: Do you have any musical education before?

AKE: No, not at all

YAN: Your music is always slow, a lot of space and very simple.

[MUSIC: Ake – EE Set 1  (live performance)]

YAN: I remember once you said it compares to fluxus, you prefer slow flow or slow river or something like this?

AKE: Yeah i think slow is my rhythm. And I enjoy slow more than fast, fast makes me nervous, slow is a comfortable rhythm for me.

YAN: Is this also one of the reasons you like the traditional music, and operas?

AKE: I think the thing I like and the thing I am is kind of different sometimes. But i enjoy. Maybe it’s childhood memories, my grandma listened to those hinan opera, I like the old man’s way of walking, way of living, the way they are talking. Just something more pure somehow for me.

[MUSIC: Dou Wun – Wayfarer’s Autumn Lament]

AKE: In Beijing I think this area is the slow area. In Hutong you can feel a bit like where i grew up, so it’s kind of like a shelter for me.

YAN: The pigeons are the best friends of the hutong people, sometimes they put whistles under the wings of the pigeons

[Yan tries to whistle through the pigeon whistles]

YAN: But not that day.

[Yan tries to whistle through the pigeon whistles]

YAN: Ah pigeons are much better than me

I have seen her perform many times. It’s always a whole thing. It’s not just about listening or just about sound. Always her body an the environment involved. Last time i saw her soo performance she had an apple. She spent about 10 minutes eating the apple then she spent another 5 minutes playing  back the sound of eating the apple through her mobile. Then she came back to eat the apple. That’s a very simple performance but i remember during the sound check she spent a lot of time checking the details of this sound. That 20 minutes was kind of a magic.

YAN: How do you think the difference between your shows and performance art

AKE: Hmm in the beginning when i just listened and watched those shows I was thinking about the stage feeling. And then I saw your performance and anyway it made me think about performance more and i realise, yes on this stage, I can also do something more performance art. I don’t know the border is more blurred later on and I feel happy about that.

YAN: So how do you think the music scene in beijing in general

AKE: It’s active, it’s still active. In D22 time it was better but now is still good.

[MUSIC: Field recording of Old Songs in Jingshan Park, recorded by Peter Cusack]

[MUSIC: Yan Jun – Rolling Box]

YAN: Beijing is a city that is changing all the time.. Some would say Beijing is much better than it was before, some would say there was a golden time. 3 years ago a lot of people left Beijing. Many things have changed but this small non music scene is still growing.

[Sound of boy next door practising the piano]

There’s a kid next door to my studio, he practises piano every day and it’s part of my room.

I always think music is not just music. It’s reacted with other things, with our life and also the political or economic environment. So when someone asks me why this music starts, why this music exists, it’s a reflection of reality, it’s a low music for low life. Under certain kinds of oppression of course some people fight, but some people speak less, some people express themselves less. I think this is a kind of radical reaction in the form of Non Music in Beijing

[Sound of boy next door practising the piano]

YAN JUN: If you asked me what is hardcore, I would say it’s being boring

Yan Jun (China, Berlin)

Yan Jun is a 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. Read more