Down a short alley in the sprawling, tourist-mobbed 798 art district here - a complex of 1950s-era military factories converted into galleries and studios - is a tiny shop that serves as one of the centers of China's small but thriving experimental music scene.
The store, Sugar Jar (白糖罐), is barely big enough to accommodate a half-dozen customers, and one wall displays all the essentials of the genre, from discs of abstract electronica and brutal noise-rock to anthologies with bold titles like China: The Sonic Avant-Garde. Playing samples from his stock, the proprietor, a lanky, soft-spoken man named Lao Yang (楊利才), noted proudly that his store is one of the only spots in all of Beijing to buy much of this music.
Like Sugar Jar, avant-garde music occupies a minuscule niche in Chinese society, overshadowed by the larger and vastly more lucrative world of contemporary visual art. Only a few dozen musicians around the country make up this circle, but their work has begun to attract international attention, and over the last several years a steady stream of Western musicians, including Brian Eno and the New York guitarist Elliott Sharp, have visited and given their blessing.
"The feeling of the scene in Beijing is exciting and reminds me of New York in 1979," said Sharp, who last performed here in April. "There's a tangible sense of discovery and transgression."
Though China may be in the beginnings of a new love affair with consumerism, rigid cultural controls are still in place, and discovery and transgression are values not widely held by the Communist government. Following President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) call for moral purity in society, broadcasters have come under increasing pressure lately to keep potentially subversive material - which means anything but sugary, shallow pop - off the airwaves. At the end of the Communist Party Congress in last month, the official Chinese Music Association denounced the "vulgar" pop music reaching the nation's youth through the Internet.
Growing out of rock and electronic music, and operating outside the state-supported classical sphere, the experimental scene in China has existed for barely a decade. Its hub is Beijing, with the electronic performers Wang Fan (王凡), Sulumi (蘇大威), Yan Jun (顏峻) and FM3; Sun Wei (孫偉), who creates sound collages under the name 718; and Dou Wei (竇唯), one of China's biggest rock stars, whose solo career includes numerous spacey, dreamlike albums that incorporate traditional instrumentation.
Shanghai has one of the most extreme noise groups, Torturing Nurse, which sometimes performs with a female member in a nurse's uniform. Huanqing, from Sichuan Province, makes field recordings from the hinterlands of China and manipulates them with electronics.
Though Western styles have influenced them, the Chinese musicians have for the most part developed in isolation, and their work is flush with the excitement of creating a new kind of music with no previous national model.
"Chinese people don't know the best music system," said Yan, who is also an influential critic. "There are no rules. No teacher. I can use this, I can use that - that's all interesting. In the West everything was created already. But here we don't know that."
In Beijing the subculture that surrounds this music is so small that most of the major participants often turn up at a weekly concert and gathering at 2Kolegas, a bar inside a drive-in movie complex on the east side of town. One recent night Yan led an audience-participation performance that involved strips of plastic sound triggers laid on the floor, to be danced on, stepped on or smacked.