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V/A - An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music: 1992-2008

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Artist: V/A

Album: An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music: 1992-2008

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Dec. 8, 2009

With four and a half hours of music and 48 tracks spread over four CDs, this collection risks offering too much to really take in. Curated by Li Chin Sung, a.k.a. Dickson Dee, a Hong Kong-based experimental artist (and founder of the Sound Factory label) who’s been active for almost 20 years, this set aims to document the development of China’s avant-garde scene. The country’s history led to a relatively late blossoming of outside sound. The cultural revolution left behind an unprecedented gap to fill, and as China’s young people began to take in outside influences, the late 1980s and early ‘90s presented the growth of a true underground.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the earliest pieces documented here, from the 1992-1995 period, all hail from Hong Kong, which was the first territory to begin exploring abstract sound. Xper Xr & The Orphic Orchestra is one of the more familiar names here (he contributed to a number of experimental compilations in the 1990s), and 1992’s "Hickory Dickory Dock" is a brief recording of creaks and distorted thrashing. Dickson Dee’s own 1994 piece "Somewhere" is significantly milder, comprised of submerged static and rumbling textures.

What’s curious, when reading the track listing, is the significant gap between 1997 and 2006 -- it’s as if no experimental music was recorded in China for almost 10 years. No explanation is given in the booklets for the collection, so it may simply be that in the interest of presenting up-to-date artists, the choice was made to offer some of the earliest artists, and then focus on the new. With the advent of the internet, it’s equally possible that there are more artists active now than there were, and they’re able to make themselves known much more easily.

With so many artists and tracks, it shouldn’t be a surprise there’s a wide range of styles, from musique concrete and field recordings to wall-of-distortion noise, but the majority of the pieces are abstract electronics, non-confrontational yet challenging listens. There’s a vast amount to take in, from Cheewei’s beautiful floating tones to Dennis Wong’s chopped-up synthesis, Wang Fan’s ambient waves to Dead J’s brittle electronic manipulations, and Pei’s apparently manipulated birdcalls to Simon Ho’s concluding piece of reverberating drones and jet plane crescendos.

The dueling questions here are first, whether there’s any unifying philosophy here (and whether one should expect such a thing), and whether there’s anything that makes this a "Chinese" collection other than locale. That is to say, could one guess from listening that these artists are from China? Is there such a thing as "Chinese" experimental music? The answer, at least after a few initial listens, is no, there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently Chinese about the recordings here, whatever that might mean. Perhaps experimental music is too abstract by nature to have any cultural landmarks by which to navigate, or it may also be that any such landmarks require more experience from the listener to be found. Listening to pieces like the moderately well-known Torturing Nurse’s "Fugitive,” however, I’m struck by the "globalism" evident in it. The initial vocal spasms immediately bring to mind early Boredoms. They’re then followed by a scratchy recording of Japanese voices, then increasingly free-scronk guitar and low-fi pummel, playing connect-the-dots with so many noise groups globally that the country of origin seems utterly unimportant.

Is the ubiquity of technology combining with creeping globalism to create a single language of experimental sound – and, given the prevalence of pop, punk and watered-down "world" music, perhaps not only experimental sound but music as a whole? If so, this language, even if shared around the world’s experimental scenes, still has a wide range of dialects, as evidenced by the number of styles in this collection.

Regardless of the question of global experimentalism, where this collection clearly succeeds is in showing the strength of China’s avant-garde. It introduces a vast number of artists, and hopefully will lead more of them to greater exposure and participation throughout the world. There’s certainly no doubt that anyone into experimental sounds will find plenty of interest here – perhaps too much.

By Mason Jones

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