(Transcript from the conference “Documenting in the Age of New Media” held at the Chinese Study Center of University of California Berkeley, December, 2008)
I often record segments of ‘meaningless’ sounds when I am on the taxi.
Riding on a taxi can be very boring. This is especially so in Beijing, where there is bound to be a traffic jam at any given hour of the day (apart from late at night). There are only three things to do: chat on the phone, sleep, or daydream, all the while listening to the infinite low hum of the motor. Of course, you can also listen to the recurrent broadcasts. On a good day, it’s Yuan Kuocheng’s critique on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, At other times, it might be critics I dislike or the ever-nagging talk show hosts. I have no idea why I record such sounds.
Now, as I listen to these recordings on my home computer, the strong and low frequencies remind me of the excitement and roughness of people living in Beijing, drowned in a sea of unconscious desire. The broadcasts were also drowned within, but the occasional ring of the driver’s conversation reminds me that all this really happened.
There was a period of time when I would leave my recorder on my window sill to record the sounds outside the home: a dog barking, children crying, drunkards shouting, the whirring of a police siren, rain, wind, a neighbor practicing the piano… the sounds usually came as a blur. For instance, the sounds of firecrackers during Chinese New Year would echo through the buildings and blur into an undistinguishable mass, as though you were submerged in an ocean of sub-consciousness.
There was another time that I was fascinated with the subway. I would record the piercing screech of halting trains, the chatter of millions of people, the noises inside compartments, boarding instructions by train conductors… Professional sound technicians would be equipped with headphones and use boom microphones on a long pole to record from above people’s heads. For me, I kept the recorder in my hand, and there would always be people bumping into it, mucking up the sound.
I have no idea what to do with these sounds I have collected and I rarely revisit them. I vaguely understand that these sounds are related to contemporary Chinese politics and economics, but that is not something I am particularly concerned about; or should I say, even though I want to care, I do not know how to link everything up.
There are times I ponder. How many years does a broken door need to remain unfixed, how many aluminum plates need to be jerry-built, how many on-off buttons wrongly wired, temporary screws, over-worked machines, unhappy drivers, make-do-use of electrical appliances, bosses who break the law, drunk youngsters, happy old men, street dancers, paper-thin walls and pipes… how many are needed to create a city polluted with too much noise? How much do I need to know about lifestyles and traditions, discussions about public spaces, high-rise economic data, and law enforcement, to analyze this environmental pollution?
I bought a second-hand MD recorder and a second-hand Sony ECM 717 microphone in 2004. It was then that I decided to create music. I recorded the sounds of fans, airplanes, summer cicadas, rain, friends chatting, and construction sites at night… I began to use all of them in my performances.
The recombination of the abstract sound of fans and the accidental recordings of chatter create a new reality, one that we find familiar and strange at the same time. Armed with my headphones and MD, I venture out at night, and everything sounds as lively as in the movies. I am drawn to places with unique sounds. I stand there, dash a few steps away, then follow a striking change of direction… The street is my instrument: I am performing an improvised piece.
Sitting on an airplane, I record more than ten minutes of monotonous rumbling. I transfer this onto a CD and play it during my live performance alongside my neighbor’s electric saw at work, and cicada hums, which are similar. These noises are ever-present in a Beijing night, and nights often teem with mystery: unknown low frequencies emitted from a construction site somewhere or maybe a club. After mixing and dubbing, these sounds are composed into music. As Murray Schaffer said, to understand soundscape music, you need to see the world as a stage with continual performances: I am passionately immersed in rearranging this stage.
I started using the computer later on and adopted the Ableton Live (musical software), which was used by many others. One track, two tracks, ten tracks, thirty tracks… it is similar to using the MD or Discman, just much more convenient. I understand that a lot of people use software to enhance sound, be it morphing it into something else or dissecting one sound into many. I rarely transform the sound source; the most I do is process it slightly to make a better harmony of sounds.
Despite the fact that I started working on sound enhancement, I still linger on the sound’s original state. Friends that do not really listen to music might comment that the sound of sweeping or that of a washing machine is nice. I would concur, but I do not just put the recordings of yesterday afternoon’s mahjong sounds on stage. That is because I am not John Cage, nor am I Edison. I get frustrated because I do not know who I am. Later on, I stopped using field recordings as sources for my musical compositions, but I continued recording, as though I am forever living on stage. I rarely go purposefully to a particular place to record material; needless to say, I would also not go traveling for the sake of recording. All I do is casually record whatever comes my way. To avoid raising people’s suspicion, I bought a microphone that looks like a pager and another that looks like a headphone.
I recorded a lot of unique sounds during that period – chants of Tibetan monks, the demolition of Beijing hutongs, calls of traditional hawkers… I also participated in events dedicated to recording the sounds of cities: sounds that are disappearing and those that are iconic. These sounds all accompany the city; yet, the noises of engines, motors and electrical appliances are also ever-present in villages across China.
My footsteps are omnipresent. Most film or radio sound recordists avoid background noise as such and highlight the one sound they want from the millions of others. A directional microphone assists with this, but I have never used one because I cannot imagine a city without ‘background’ noises: it would be a kind of creation, not a documentation. To me, these noises are more meaningful than those clean, highlighted, sampled sounds.
I am currently using a Edirol r09 Digital Recorder, a rather cheap portable recorder. The sounds from different microphones and recorders come out differently, and the sounds the Edirol records seem unreal. Just by altering the position of the microphone, the sounds it picks up change. The characteristic of a stereo recorder is that it determines my relationship with the rest of the environment. It brings about a stereo world, a world that moves alongside my saunters – an unreal world. One point that needs clarification is that this world in motion is not my subjective world.
There is a term ‘cocktail effect’, whereby we can clearly pick up what a person is saying, however loud the setting we are in. However, if we do a recording in the same location, speech is very difficult to differentiate. This is because, in reality, people communicate via facial expressions and focus their hearing on the source of sound. In other words, an auditory experience is a combination of hearing, visual stimuli, experience, and psychology. Therefore, directional microphones can recreate this human will of directional hearing. Contrarily, I cancel out these senses unrelated to the auditory system with a stereo recorder, and immerse my audience in a world of noise, leaving them to feel a helpless freedom.
I guess this is the best objective reality that an egocentric person can ever offer.
Back in 2007, a friend introduced me to a place called Qiujiang Lu in Shanghai: seven or eight streets strewn with second-hand stores selling computer accessories, electro-mechanical components, electrical appliances, all kinds of metalware, huge machinery, audio and video products… Every item is astoundingly inexpensive – be it used, pirated, cheap imitations, or brandless. One can take a guess as to how large the demand for such low-quality goods is and how many sales are made on a daily basis. These retailers are not rich, yet their lives are inseparable from electric appliances, machines, electronics, computers and mobile phones – objects for people with money. The fresh vegetables and seafood in the Qiujiang Lu market are equally cheap. I have never paid more than ten Yuan for a meal at a restaurant here. I somehow find the dirty tables, floors and utensils an understandable necessity.
Two railways meet at Qiujiang Lu. I was surrounded by the most well-dressed youngsters, students and office workers as passengers. Looking out from a train, one sees old roofs, temporary housing, and crowds of men in tattered clothes. I dislike these people – they spit on the ground, hit their children, go out of their way to squeeze the last bit of profit they can make off me, or sell me fake goods. If they are dressed up a bit, they barbarically stop me from recording and kick me out of their territory.
Walking among these people, I hear the roaring of the train from above, and all the sounds you can possibly imagine alongside those you do not. Apart from the sounds of production and exchange in Qiujiang Lu, there are sounds of livelihoods, of wearing pajamas on the street (a real part of Shanghai’s culture), of people playing chess, washing urinals, cooking, drinking, and cutting hair on the street. Actually, the sounds of work and life are intertwined in most parts of China. Sounds from above and sounds from the side, though all mixed up, are starkly different; utmost clarity and muddled ignorance seem to be present in everyone’s hearts.
I set off from a small laptop repair shop wearing my headset microphone and saunter down Qiujiang Lu. There are times when I have to turn my head to avoid the screeching sounds of the motorbikes. Sometimes I stop to listen to the sounds of the waste-decomposition factories. I am acutely monitored by people I come across on the streets like those who sell cockroach poison or raw footage. Near the end of my stroll, I turn around and follow a lady who sells cheap jewelry. She carries accessories of the Chinese zodiac animals strung together by a red string, shouting to attract customers. A few workers gather around for a long time but no one buys anything.
I returned to Qiujiang Lu in January 2008 to record more sounds. I had also finished my CD called Qiujiang Lu, of which 1,000 copies were made. I found a rice noodle shop, a DVD shop, a man who sold computer accessories, a man who sold cheap CDs, and a man who selling pop song CD which he burned. I jokingly said that the CD might just be conceptual art because I recorded all of the sounds in Qiujiang Lu, and now it has returned. A friend commented that this work documents the reality of China being the world’s factory, and then through the exchange of goods, it is once again part of reality. For me, this is not the main point. Everything I do is solely inspired by my auditory enjoyment, and hence this particular road and rhythm was chosen. The process is more of an performing of reality than a documentation of it.
What am I really orchestrating or documenting? Simply put, my subjective selection is switched off once my recorder is on – this in itself is a fascinating experience. As a by-product, I record an abundance of noise related to the people, places and events I come across: I record life, the environment, and an unconscious knowledge of the era I live in.
I don’t think this is art unless everyday life itself is art.