Written by Yan Jun
Translated by Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau
Hans van Dijk compiled his Lexicon and Library of 5000 artists active in China, born between 1880 and 1980 as a dictionary, a compendium, an archive of China’s contemporary (visual) art. In the 1990s good old Hans had witnessed Chinese contemporary art emerge from the chaosmos, and helped it give birth to its own logic.
His archive doesn’t mention sound art because it was still in its infancy. Very few people in China were aware of it, let alone actively involved. He also didn’t include musicians. Well, music is music, and it’s not on the map of the visual arts.
Since then sound and noise have wandered into the scope of art. Today, they are seen, but not heard or experienced. It is their being observed, their illumination under the intellect, which grants them definite existence: modernist creation in a nutshell. These processes unfold under their specific circumstances, regardless of Hans’ or anyone else’s naming. Still I want to explore here how noise produces (meaningless) meaning in my direct environment.
Noise is what is expunged by empire.
Noise is what is at the threshold of becoming music: of being organized, co-opted by empire.
Noise is what can’t be tolerated. It is thrown back into the subconscious. And then again it’s what is hauled out of the dark night of possibilities, molded into a visible shape, named, and put into circulation.
Noise also enters circulation voluntarily. It makes holes and gaps into circulation. After the Industrial Revolution noise is everywhere. A hundred years ago, the futurists proclaimed the art of noise: noise ventured out of its primitive chaosmos only to guard the chaosmos. It’s the sound of flesh and machines, and above all the sound of flesh and machines intermingling.
On 19 May 2008, the seventh day after the big earthquake of Wenchuan in Sichuan province, the Chinese government organized a nationwide moment of silence. I decided to go to Tiananmen Square with my sound recorder, curious for the sound of solemnity.
When the ritual was about to start a male voice repeatedly blared a decree of the politburo over bleeping loudspeakers. I was overwhelmed by anticipation. Everyone stopped moving around and encircled the national flag. Or rather they found a place to stand in one of the areas around the national flag. The areas were marked off by military police and railings, in the center, close to the flag, a microphone, probably of China Central TV (CCTV).
My microphone was built-in the recording device, and was squeezed with me in the crowd. From beginning to end people were chatting, shouting, and even telling jokes. Cellphones went off. I was getting worked up. These people seemed to have no respect at all for the moment of silence. But then again, I was surrounded by people from Sichuan, many of whom were likely to personally know victims of the earthquake.
Then I thought of funerals in my hometown. There seemed to be no dignified silence there either, neither in its modernized nor in its sublime classical form. Back there funerals are three day and night long banquets held in large sheds. During the vigil people would drink and play games, and the funeral procession would invariably be accompanied by loud jokes. There would be loud wailing too (at prescribed moments), and occasionally a Daoist or Buddhist service. Now that would be a real din. Cymbals and Chinese wind instruments, such as the suona, don’t produce music but trance-like, spiritual noise. Funerals are festivals where the flock congregates.
CCTV broadcast a neat silence. The voices of thousands of people shouting “Long Live China” after the ritual were heavily filtered, over-produced and imposing like a sound wave in a stadium, up to the point where they became just one voice. All those with substandard Mandarin pronunciation and hoarse throats were edited out of existence. The male voice that had incessantly and repeatedly, like a road sign, been urging people to restrain their grief was also censored.
Three kinds of sound: (1) the voice of the nation—the sounds of guidance; (2) the subconscious voices of the collective—the sounds of desire; and finally (3) noise—the interference that has been filtered out by history.
The voice of the nation is expressionless. It feigns neutrality, straightforwardness. Personified by generation upon generation of CCTV news anchors, this voice has found a new vehicle in the voice actors of car commercials. Apparently, cars are expressionless too, and selling aloofness and disdain towards the pedestrian world of the aristocracy of lore. This voice seeks to expel human animalness. They work hard to root out serendipity and biochemical quirks. This voice also suppresses local diversity. It doesn’t belong to any place at all, and can only issue forth from the upper echelons. In this sense it’s a sacrifice. It isn’t rigid because it died, but because it lacks vitality. It is beyond life: sublime, solemn and worshipped.
The collective subconscious is a poem. It is desire prior to its fixation on any object. It is an immense energy, torrents of the chaosmos, beyond good and evil. Poetry is what is not understood: in love poems, landscape poems, in any poetry at all there invariably is a kind of energy that refuses to be pinned down. It is oscillating meaning, aura and atmosphere, and then slipping away before meeting the lover or arriving at the landscape. Why would the people on the square in their moment of mourning call for the nation? Is it anger or grief? And it doesn’t matter. It comes off spontaneously, what matters is to lose your voice. Poetry is tears and spit. It exists, no need for a reason.
Poetics is a call for poetry. From the desire for language comes an appeal for a few lines of black on white. Not to change anything, but to preserve polysemy. In the sounds, shapes and densities hides ever more desire. Poetry offers useless catharsis. It radiates energy from mid-air and in return saturates the environment with potency.
Nevertheless, poetics is always taken elsewhere, reassigned. Just like today’s rock music: tens of thousands sing and dance together, like programmed automats. And then they go back to where ever they came from. They are contend with car commercials defining the sublime, and with real estate ads defining the earth (Holderlin and Haizi’s poetry supply China’s most ubiquitous slogans in the property market). The party isn’t the only poetic with a grasp of lyricism and secrecy.
Poetry needs to replenish its meaninglessness. In eulogizing lovers it also makes words rub against each other, and gives birth to the web, fissures and secret passage ways of polysemy. Language seizes the opportunity to manifest its own materiality: length, warmth, feel, sound. Materiality enables the poet to forget his lover. Sound: when a poet from Sichuan recites his works, standard Mandarin Chinese automatically dissolves in the minds of his audiences. Sound cannot be replaced by writing.
Large-scale open-air music festivals, moments of silence and advertisements are like one-way tickets. They only allow for one designated meaning. During the journey passengers are not allowed to eat, make calls or talk into themselves. During the moment of silence the expressionless voice is a call from the nether world, guiding the perturbances of the chaosmos, the noise and the intransitive subconscious toward a clear concept: the fatherland. How ‘fatherland’ should be decoded is yet another case of resonating linguistic preconditions.
It’s been a very long time since anything lyrical took place at Tian’anmen. The last time was in 1989, when for months on end a student movement swept the country. That ended on June 4th in the early hours before dawn. The army forged a pathway through students’ and residents’ barriers and cleaned out the Square of Heavenly Peace.
Tian’anmen was indeed the center of the movement, but it was an internally divided one. It gave home to various headquarters and sometimes even power struggles. At the same time it occasioned lots of spontaneous events, including demonstrations, hunger strikes, donations of food and water, tourism, weddings, rock concerts, the pulling of pranks and the catching of pranksters. It included word of mouth news and lonely heroism (tank man Wang Weilin), and the people who died from stray bullets. Then there are the nameless students that finally dispersed under the pressure of the approaching tanks. Maybe we should also remember the people that snitched after the ‘settling of scores’. They are the ellipses of a poem.
The story goes that the student movement was after democracy, and Western-style democracy at that. But maybe only a fraction had any understanding of democracy, and even fewer had thought about what kind of movement it would take to realize it. The majority was just jolted from daily life and thrown out on the streets. On peak days a million people would visit Tian’anmen. Everywhere there were shouts of support, the most popular slogan being ‘topple official profiteering, oppose corruption’. But it wasn’t out of discontent. It rather was a celebration of possibilities, a carnival. ‘I’ve fallen in love with the you I’ve never met,’ isn’t that right?
It’s a misconception that the crackdown slaughtered common ideals. There never was any such thing, even if the people were once hopeful. Because it was a hope that was never pinned down and that encompassed all possible directions. Triggered by specific events it just poured out onto the streets.
Throughout the Student Movement’s unraveling the entire citizenry was involved in one way or another, even if only by watching the news: (1) Feeling truly alive, not resulting from shaking off the feeling of ‘having never lived’ but emerging as the logical conclusion after the 1980s had introduced a host of new phenomena: the world is fresh, calling forth thoughtless exclamations that in turn set bodies in motion. (2) Feeling complete, not resulting from demonstrating or from applauding the demonstrators but emerging from these universal common concerns: it’s not communal singing but communal listening that brought forth the community. (3) Feeling firm ground under one’s feet; the simple basis of dialectics. Only people that believe in themselves can believe in action. This is a heightened sense of presence, not resulting in resisting current reality out of any concrete dissatisfaction but out of a longing to strengthen this sense of presence: like the ears, marking a position in the world.
At the time there were no words to convey these feelings. After going through the end of the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening Up, disco, campus elections, pop songs, Qigong hypes, avant-garde literature, science, two crackdowns on crime and two purges of spiritual life there was barely enough vocabulary left to describe the new Chinese mainland, and some of those terms were borrowed. In 1988 the song “Go With Feeling” was a big hit. Emotions were rife and language was struggling to catch up. Another song lyric: I want to offer you my aspirations, and my freedom. But you always laugh at my having nothing to my name (Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”). After having warmed-up for a while, people were catapulting themselves into the distance. At such a moment democracy looked like the other shore that was just about to appear into view. Reluctantly it accepted the role of lyrical object.
Before 1989 language was univocal, symbolic. Every object had its matching word, and the words their symbolic order. In the wake of the accelerating expansion of things, the people sang The Internationale to celebrate the disintegration of order. First, language launched into a carnival. Squares were plastered with classical style poetry, modern style poetry, limericks and ravings. It’s the world on its head without reason: noise pours out of the visual empire, to accompany the celebration of invisible feelings. During his hunger strike at Tian’anmen, the poet Luo Yihe suffered a stroke and died in a hospital. He once wrote the avant-garde is the last snow falling from a clear sky. Then the people of the communist agricultural society find out there is no symbol ‘snow’ anymore. Some put noise on a path to modernized music: democracy. Others end all sound with a gunshot: high-pressure loneliness.
That’s how it is. After the Industrial Revolution, all loneliness is high-pressure. Use technology and culture to create a small vacuum in the seas of noise.
The loss of feeling is to be cured with the failure of language.
Throughout the 1990s, the only thing left for the majority of people was making money. It was as if they wanted to void the world of meaning as soon as possible. Material, feeling, bodies, everything was exchanged for pure symbolic relations: a bottom line sense of security. Almost no one discussed June 4th, maybe because language could not convey its complexity.
With the 1989 Student Movement song “More or Less in Winter” Chyi Chin, and then also Sandy Lam and other pop singers transformed the psychological wound into a romantic scar. Karaoke was all the rage in 1992 and 1993: lyricism for everyone. It woke up dissonant voices and rustic passions from their lengthy slumber, but only to insert them into a predesigned formula. As arrangements became more polished, bass sounds more dominant, clubs replaced a previous era of spontaneous disco parties, and more and more genres emerged, language was seized by a tourist from the subconscious, and conscripted in a bid for legal status.
In the 1990s the record industry was booming. It recast bodies into vehicles of sonic and written symbols. With the language of pop music it constructed a world of self-perpetuation. Body parts that had been scattered around were reintegrated, with no parole. This logic prevented the corpse of romanticism from getting a proper burial. On the contrary, it went through makeover and kept making appearances in people’s subconscious, just like the mummy of the mother in Hitchcock’s Psycho. This recycling absorbed the noise, foul language, dream language and foreign tongues of the collective unconscious and repackages them into the myriad genres and styles that are on display in the sonic supermarket. In the post-Olympic era this practice became highly lucrative: except for what is not permitted, all is permitted.
Chinese rock was born in the mid-1980s. Its loudness, youth and Western (distant) origins made it a natural foreign tongue. Of course. All poetry is foreign language. In 1989 the students’ attempt at inventing a foreign language failed. Rock musicians adopted this abandoned project, but instead of after loanwords they were after self-estrangement: becoming the foreigners of themselves.
After a brief period of exuberance – personified by the band Tang Dynasty and their dying light of romanticism, they even covered The Internationale – it started destructing its own language. Between 1992 and 1993 NO, The Fly and The Master Says were the earliest alternative rock bands. They fused modern insanity with farmer crazy. In 1995 Jin Wulin and Chen Jin each released an experimental album. The lyrics and sounds were obscure, detached from reality and also far from daily experience. Cui Jian’s music became highly complex, and no longer lyrical. Now it stressed the groove of the body. Then came grunge, Beijing punk, Wuhan punk and then the underground rock of the out-of-towners. Bands became increasingly allergic to heroic posing and crude tattoos (a device of self-mutilation). Chinese rock had never been so angry, and had never been so deafening.
Experimental, avant-garde music sprang from two logics: (1) the destruction of language under equivalent conversion (2) a return to the body and the resources of mysticism.
Chinese modern music is a history of increasingly accurate compositional techniques, richer chords and progressive clarity. Since the 1920s it has developed bass instruments, increased volume, and improved music notation, to create Chinese orchestras that can vie with those of Western Classical music… Nevertheless in the 1990s a number of musicians outside of the academic and official circuit stubbornly imitated the West while refusing to sever their spiritual ties with this plot of land. They excavated a tradition where language is useless: “The path (dao) that can be spoken is not the real path”, “Don’t build up texts, directly touch people’s minds.” Firstly it’s about the breakdown of reality, which installs an urge for the truth. And then it’s about the blindness emitted by the intellect. Truth appears through rational short-circuits. At this point of course a punk / revolutionary spirit is indispensable.
The first generally acknowledged experimental musician is Wang Fan. He started by writing rock lyrics in mysterious glyphs and symbols. Later, in 1996, with crude equipment he made the album Dharma Crossing. The tracks were very long, like chants of witchcraft. The people that emerged thereafter are not per se mystics, but at the very least they propagate instinctiveness. Additionally, they like ‘to rediscover’, leading to self-taught trials of noise, atonality and abused instruments. A number of aficionados started searching for music that’s more boisterous (more sensory), more abstract, more charged with spiritual energy, for instance the Japanese musician Keiji Haino. But these trends didn’t resemble the European avant-garde art of the 1910s to 1930s at all, which emphasized reflection upon and the transformation of reality. Rather than bringing magic back into modern life, these musicians wanted to leave reality behind and return to the ultimate presence of spirit.
Thereupon (1) Wang Fan, Li Jianhong and the Lanzhou Noise Association invented their own noise: both an extension of the body, of rock music, and a tying in with traditional and folk religion. (2) At the same time youngsters like Wang Changcun that were listening to Dajun Yao’s “Avant-garde Music Radio” (now called Fore-Taste New Music Radio) didn’t have any background in rock or mysticism. They took up max/msp and wrote their noise in a new language. Abandon the body, or rather, sacrifice the body, offer it up to the language of computer programming. This is a game that is perhaps not all that different from those played by the scholars of old. (3) Then in 2003 to 2004, Ronez in Guilin and Torturing Nurse (still China’s most famous noise band) in Shanghai dropped the last bit of ‘Chineseness’. As cultural nomads, stateless and homeless people, they performed loud, nihilist noise. This is a way of approaching reality: there’s no exchange anymore, only the extreme zooming in on fragments of already lost meaning.
In the dreaded silence of post-1989 China, capital and ideology find each other and redirect the scattered noises, as if they were attracting private funding in a bid for the creation of added value. Noise actively seeks form. There’s no such thing as the original state of noise. Noise is a product of modernity. At birth it was already far removed from ‘the way’ (Dao) of harmony and chaosmos. Noise is the intuitive state of language. Some use noise to return to truth, others transform the void in front of their eyes into truth.
In 2003 Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took over from Jiang Zemin. It seemed an encouragingly reasonable and fresh era had arrived, on the wings of SARS. Supermarkets and fashion magazines exploded and the internet went through an upgrade. It was the end of violence and the beginning of salacity.
The years between 1990 and 2002 can be seen as the endgame of ideology. Judging by an interview in 2006 in the South China People Weekly with Liu Zhongde, former minister of culture of the PRC and vice minister of the propaganda department of the CCP, the cultural repression of that era was seen as a necessary defense of faith. By asking perilous question the journalist suggested they were up to abominable and ignominious counter actions. Nevertheless, this set-up as a whole chimed in perfectly with the ensuing Hu-Wen era, which promoted the idea that the battle of ideals had ended for good and all that was left was a struggle over techniques and power.
At this moment underground rock suddenly dissolved. This can be interpreted as the bankruptcy of oppositional logics: as soon as the enemy retreats into the shadows, the rebel loses his raison d’etre. But it can also be interpreted as a subconscious-induced suicide: the refusal to jump on the bandwagon of the times.
Then the art of lyricism started to resurface in relation to advertisement companies and the nation state: (1) A leader that understood the power of tears made a deep impression. Prior the Chinese only saw political acting in Taiwanese and American news. (2) Every year on National Day huge LED screens would be set up on Tian’anmen Square, which broadcast pristine quality propaganda clips. This coincides with the aspirations of contemporary artists to become celebrities of the spectacle, effectively running branch offices of this huge propaganda installation. With this the physical and spiritual remainders of agricultural society that had so far escaped naming (being sealed up by the regime) now became the hunting grounds for modernized technology and culture.
In 2006 the Yunnan-based musician Madness and Civilization released 198 – 964. Two tracks of indistinct melodies and vague noise interspersed with recordings from the Student Movement period, possibly news samples. Rather than calling it noise, it’s better to say that from the language fragments the author tries to reconstruct a once unified subject: he wants to mourn too. This linguistically ambivalent attitude is already being exploited by the art of spectacle: to tie in people’s nostalgia with seemingly estranging material.
In 2008 the Hong Kong pioneers of protest songs Black Birds released the music video “June Fourth Sweep-up, Helplessness, Rebelling and Solidarity”, historical photographs + sound recordings from the days around June Fourth (speeches, crying, gun shots and rescue alarms) + musical accompaniment. This extended their previous methods by borrowing from melodrama. The result came across as a shoddy TV commercial. Yet the value of this work is precisely in its shoddiness. Just like the band Pangu (or Punk God) who fled from China in 2004. They continue to release anti-communist songs, but most of the time it’s irrational bad-mouthing rather than political begeisterung. Shoddiness and irrationality have their own politics, just like the whispering and laughter of the Sichuan migrant workers at Tian’anmen Square. They are the malfunctioning lights in the huge LED screens, a grain in the eyes.
Sincere noise: (1) Mafeisan, who emerged after 2007, continued Wang Fan’s mysticism, but in a more joyous vein. Their noise is wrapped up in Hippie culture, shamanism, Buddhism, and old Indian men. They organize communes, help the universe transmit love and invent sonic rituals. They can’t help succumbing to noise themselves: an internally conflicted fake religion. (2) Thereafter a number of young musicians took inspiration from free jazz and harsh noise. These were cathartic, subjectivity inducing sounds, sounds of the market that suppressed lost subjectivity. Like the great composers of the 1950s and 1960s they oppose capitalism with a formidable ego: giants and masters. This meaningful noise posits that love, freedom, sincerity and more such values are valid, and that noise makes them louder. But actually noise spills over from the imagination of musicians and fans: the louder it gets, the more these notions are destroyed. This is the performance of the loss of control on multiple levels. So far this scene hasn’t been able to produce the next rock hero.
Low volume sounds: (1) field recordings, emerging after 2002 and represented by the Harbin-based Hitlike. These throw into relief the crackling of the cheap recording equipment itself, and the fragments of daily life: ordinary sounds. (2) Improvised music had its growth spurt after 2008. This is anti-climactic music. The performer is perpetually asked: what do you try to express? It doesn’t seem to be sincere, and doesn’t offer physical pleasure either. In a society full of conflict and discursive chaos and where everyone sticks to their guns, soft noise is about listening and not expressing. This is the paradox of seeking silence through language: just like surrealists remake reality in a place above (sur) reality.
‘No poetry after Auschwitz’ means that people are aware of the dilemma of language. Language ossified with the world. It became a spastic reaction of late German romanticism to modernity, like a behemoth offering his laws to the world (Shelley: poets are the unauthorized law-makers of the world). In the poetry of law-makers resides absolute meaning, which is a kind of wishful thinking. Therefore, next to pulverizing the fetters of established language, there is no way of averting disaster. So metaphor ceases to be a sine qua non for poetry. When all is said and done poetry doesn’t need to be understood: losing yourself in language is like losing yourself in society. Let man touch and smell his world like an animal: losing oneself is a form of arriving.
‘No poetry after Auschwitz’ is an expression of decay. It is a prescriptive figure of speech. The avant-gardists that were equally shocked by World War I would never talk like this. They immediately reformed poetry. Sound poems: the noise of poetry. They got rid of the voice (the grammar) of guidance, and liberated perturbation and ravings. In its first century, noise has consistently been opposing the politics of the nation and advertisement. It abandoned all meaning, beginning with its own. That is its sacrifice, guarding the void which brings forth the myriad things. If June 4th is an explosion of language, than what happened since is the repairing and upgrading of the old language in the visual empire. As well as, in its invisible gaps, the unfettering of language’s potency and ability to escape human power, and of humans’ potency and ability to escape human power. These two things are not in battle like left and right or black and white, but engage in a game between unknown poetry and known politics.
Eventually, what noise offers is an ethics of symbols. It shies away from imprisoning us in experience.
A different version of this article was published in New Art Magazine, issue 6, 2014, Hangzhou.