Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Chinese avant-garde makes noise

In a country where the government keeps the media on a short leash, the most exciting new music comes from the underground

BY BEN SISARIO  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

It could have been a musical game of the kind that flourished in downtown New York lofts in the 1970s, except for the overhead ambient music with Chinese instrumentation that played through a sound system. Among those in the crowd were the members of FM3, who frequently employ Chinese sound elements, as well as Wu Na (烏娜), who plays the zither-like guqin (古琴).

Despite the new openness of Chinese society and its arts, the stultifying influence of the state is still felt in mass entertainment like the candied pop that fills the airwaves, and even in the often dull music coming out of the universities.

Kenneth Fields, a professor of electronic music at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, complained of a lack of creativity and free thought among students at his and other universities. The most exciting new music in China, he said, comes from the underground.

"Media is very centrally controlled at the top; at the bottom it seems to be a mirror of anarchy," Fields said. "There's no innovation at the top, but on the bottom there's a lot of informal freedoms."

The experimental and underground rock musicians represent the most creative contingent of Chinese music, and the scene has had its first bona fide international hit: FM3's Buddha Machine, a device slightly bigger than an iPod that plays nine electronic drones, has sold nearly 50,000 units around the world and already spawned remix albums. Christiaan Virant, a US-born musician who is half of FM3, arrived at 2Kolegas in a spiffy black suit with a while silk scarf and a white Panama hat. The other half is a Chinese man, Zhang Jian (張薦). His new prosperity, he said, is "all 100 percent thanks to the Buddha Machine."

But this music has received scant attention at home, from the marketplace or, for good or ill, from the government. The Buddha Machine is not widely available in China, because the low price demanded by the domestic market would make the cost of distributing it prohibitive, Virant said. (It is, of course, for sale at Sugar Jar.)

Like most pockets of avant-garde music, the Chinese musicians have no real commercial prospects. And while relatively few links exist to contemporary visual arts, that world and its moneyed clientele provide essential ancillary income.

Artists who might have minimal record sales - meaning hundreds of copies, or even fewer - can make money doing sound installations at galleries and, increasingly, through commissions from real estate developers looking to add a cool factor to their buildings by using sound art commissioned from underground musicians.

"There are huge amounts of rich people in China who lavish huge amounts of money on weird stuff," Virant said.

The attention did not seem so lavish one recent afternoon at Sugar Jar. Over a few hours several curious gallery-goers wandered into the shop and looked around at the CDs for sale, though none bought anything. Lao said he operates the store without a proper retail license - that, he said, would necessitate stocking music for mainstream tastes, an intolerable concession - and until recently slept in the back.

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