essay for LSF 43

Text|XU, Jian-Yu
Translate|Yvonne Kennedy

You might be familiar with this sensation, after experiencing a range of sound performances, your ears are no longer up to the task of categorizing and discerning between different types of sound. Our range of sonic expressions are so sparse that we have become accustomed to hearing a plethora of unnameable sounds in performances. And our attitudes have become lax. We know intrinsically that these sounds are ephemera. In any performance, they exist purely for their own sake and for our temporal experience. Where these sounds meet our experience is nothing more than a recording history.

When a stage is set with a sitar and a group of electronic equipment, it looks just like any other performance setting. The audience sees the instrument, and will form certain expectations about what happens next. This becomes a seeming paradox. Ever since “noise” became a political statement, noise has been emanating from every direction and every crevice to reveal the restrictions and esotericism of music. They make every effort to overthrow the elevated status of music. Subsequently, as “Sound Art” bred and multiplied, its progeny sought to overturn the established status that music occupies. “Sound” seeks to mark itself as an art form beyond the realm of music, and occupy the same space as art, what can we believe will happen in this stage set up? Will it only be a politically correct act in sound art? I am not sure what doubts others entertain, but I can be certain that this will be a performance, and this determination is obvious in every detail and ambiance within this space. This is the setting for a concert, without question, exactly like the ones we have experienced in the past.

This is certainly a tug on the imagination. We have seen too many performances at the Nanhai Gallery – or perhaps this has nothing to do with the Nanhai Gallery – and now our ears have established a specific rigidity and constructed a certain understanding for ourselves and toward these forms. And so, I stalled from the very start.

Unexpectedly, this combination of the sitar and electronica did not move us toward banality. They followed a common aesthetic theme and brought us again and again into the brink of trance. Even if this wasn’t the intended outcome, I believe the performance at least included this type of theme: to communicate with the human psyche, and to attempt to control that communion. This has been one of the ancient and timeless tasks of music. What the sitar expresses surpasses sound. This doesn’t surprise anyone. It encompasses ancient Indian cosmology, and points to what has been lost in Western music. Electronica spans a half-century. It has successfully changed the modes of centuries-old musical production. From the other side of the spectrum, it provides a response to the ancient themes without nostalgia. From a certain perspective, what they speak to, in the 30 minutes, is how music has never lost its function. Throughout time, music has been an essential aspect of ceremony, and we both need and trust in its ability to control the spiritual – this was also in the term repeated by Li Jun and Pei Yuan during the questions and answers segment: it is a spiritual cultivation.

Both of these performances reveal the methods by which music connects with the spirit. In actuality, this is also the way music connects with the body. This phenomenon is obvious. We can’t deny the fact that in this near-religious experience, the effects on the physical body – whether by obviating or awakening -- distills a consensus. In order to control the spiritual, there must first be a grasp of the body, and reflecting on the body also enables this theme to be realized.

I must admit that whenever I listen to Huang Dawang’s chaotic noise performances, there is always an effect of clarity. In today’s electronic music scene in Taipei, there is often an ambiance of trendiness and technology. This type of culture has developed too quickly, and industrial noise has been rapidly drowned out. Another scenario is that we have gradually incorporated different types of sounds under the theoretical concept of sound art, and implicitly there are now few sounds that continue to perplex us. We can assume immediately that these noises are to be considered “art.” We have to work hard to find motivation for renewed discussion. And when, in one of the soundscapes created by Huang Dawang, the question returns the primal dialectic between the body and sound, this gives us a perspective that makes us feel concrete. These jarring sounds prevent us from desiring music – the same way that the performance created anxiety in audiences a few decades ago, they still conjure a bodily unease, forcing you to purge from every pore, coercing you to stay awake. From the first sound to the very last, I feel an exclusion of thought. It solely transmits an aesthetic that questions the body, and at this moment you must be conscious of your decision to resist or to take pleasure.

In the Q & A session afterward, a few of the artists attributed a discussion on aesthetics to the act of “pure listening.” This proposition is easy and, at the same time, a bit serious when we consider the background implied by the label of "sound art": we exist in a society manufactured by countless sounds, and simultaneously in a society that manufactures countless sounds. This society has provided comprehensive cultural content for every type of sound, so by what path can we explore and discuss “pure listening”? In the past, we always chose the route that clearly dissected music. We accepted “purity” in the exalted introspection of sound history. It was reason for defending art; it bore sweet fruit. It existed both in our silence and in our discussion. But can we now begin to question “purity”? Or is it still apparent as a relic of the avant-garde?

We have long departed from the enlightened context pioneered by the Fluxus movement. In attempting to discuss the “essential” today, a difficulty we might encounter is that there are no longer sounds that compel resistance from the audience. If we continue to sit below the stage, any type of sound becomes another offering, and the audience will develop a new aesthetic theory. In this small space that conjures assurance, what we need may be a small, yet encompassing and reassuring, topic for discussion. Perhaps, concentration; Or, distraction.

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