Primer: Beijing Sound as Art

Josh Feola discusses the projects past and present that treat Beijing sounds as music, data and art

To most ears, Beijing’s soundscape is dense to the point of being unintelligible. But for some, the city’s noise is a rich resource: a locus of history, a concatenation of meanings and symbols harder to decipher than visual scenes of the same subject. Here are a few projects undertaken over the last 13 years that treat the sound of Beijing as a medium, as music, as data and as art.

One early project placing Beijing sounds in the gallery context was an installation by electronic music composer Christiaan Virant called Building Beijing. Virant’s best known work today is the FM3 Buddha Machine — a small plastic box that plays pre-recorded ambient drone loops — which he first released with bandmate Zhang Jian in 2005. He completed Building Beijing in 2003 as a meditation on the role of noise in the urban experience, specifically Beijing’s construction noise in the wake of the announcement that the city would host the 2008 Olympics.

In the summer of 2003, Virant biked to the four ancient, cardinal city gates — such as Dongzhimen to the east and Xizhimen to the west — and recorded the sounds of the development boom eating at Beijing’s inner-city hutong neighbourhoods. He presented the recordings as a multi-channel sound sculpture, arranging the geographical recording points in separate corners of the gallery so as to give users a virtual, audio-only tour of central Beijing as they walked through the space.

Building Beijing was presented in 2003 at the newly opened Beijing Tokyo Art Projects gallery in 798 and again in Denmark by SSSHHHHH, a ‘ghetto blaster orchestra’ that performed the piece as a kinetic sculpture for eight moving boom boxes. Beyond its brief showing, Virant says, Building Beijing did not resonate with a local audience. ‘No one really got it, it was just a bunch of noise to them. I think it took a bit of time for the whole noise scene to develop for people to have a deeper consciousness about sounds in their environment and their musicality.’


‘Pigeons in Beijing, flying with whistles attached’: Photo by Clive Bell

The ‘noise scene’ would blossom in the run-up to the 2008 games, thanks in large part to the weekly Waterland Kwanyin event series organised by Sub Jam label founder Yan Jun. Influence from visiting experimental musicians would aid the process. In 2005, the British Council funded a project called Sound and the City, organised by longtime Beijing-based artist and curator Colin Chinnery. For the project, the Council invited four British musicians — including environmental sound artist Peter Cusack, ambient music pioneer Brian Eno and East Asian wind instrument master Clive Bell — to Beijing to complete a ‘sound work inside the city’, excluding the possibility of traditional gallery shows or live concerts. Chinnery says that Cusack, who has built a corpus of field recording work in areas as remote as Siberia and Azerbaijan, engaged with the subject matter deeply. ‘[Cusack] was over the moon,’ Chinnery recalls. ‘He said it was the most interesting sound environment he'd ever heard.’

For Sound and the City, Cusack re-contextualised his 1998 piece ‘Your Favourite London Sounds’, in which he solicited feedback to isolate and record Londoners’ preferred city noises. For the Beijing corollary, Cusack held a radio competition asking Beijingers to call in with their favourites. The answers he received ranged from characteristic neighbourhood and street noises (‘Knife Sharpener Man’, ‘Beijing Taxi Meter’) to sonic badges of national and cultural pride (‘Raising the Flag in Tiananmen Square’, ‘Old Songs in Jingshan Park’) to abstractions more poignantly captured by sound than text or image (‘Hutong Quiet’, ‘Walking on Gingko Leaves’).

Cusack’s contribution to Sound and the City sewed the seeds for Chinnery’s current curatorial focus, the Beijing Sound History Project. ‘It was much later, the past few years, that I started thinking of historic sound and how it's disappearing’, Chinnery says. His goal is to create a sonic history of Beijing using sounds sourced and verified through oral accounts, and later faithfully recreated in a recording studio.

An early prototype of the Beijing Sound History Project can be experienced at the Shijia Hutong Museum, a restored courtyard residence once inhabited by Chinnery’s grandparents. Alongside exhibits on the general history of the hutong and the cultural currents that pulsed through Shijia Hutong in particular, Chinnery’s installation is a software interface that allows the visitor to recreate historical soundscapes by inputting date range, time of day, time of year, and weather. There is also a bank of Beijing sounds stretching back to the pre-1950s — street sellers, vintage bicycle bells, police whistles — that Chinnery has painstakingly recreated after interviews with elderly residents who can still recall the pre-modern din of Old Beijing.

Chinnery is the first to admit that when artificially recreating historical sounds, there is a fine line between art and documentation. As an artist, he’s attracted to ‘sound's relationship with time, and how it relates to memory’ more viscerally than images or words. ‘But this is not an art work’, he says about his current project. ‘I don't know what it is, really. If I do it successfully over many, many years, it could be construed or understood as an artwork. And I'm not against that, but I have to approach it as something which is neutral, a sound database where I have software to reconstruct certain scenarios.’

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Recreation of a typical Beijing family living room in the 1950s and ‘60s, Shijia Hutong Museum

As Chinnery continues to conceptualise and build his historical sound database, a visiting American artist will present his take on the sound of Beijing as art medium with an installation opening this month at Meridian Space. Jason Kahn cut his teeth as a musician drumming in a handful of punk and free jazz bands on the seminal Los Angeles record label SST. He moved to Berlin after a tour in 1989, attracted by the extreme cultural paroxysms following the fall of the Wall. He began performing solo percussion sets in small venues and galleries, later expanding his practice to include electronic sampling. Kahn began experimenting with field recording in 1995. ‘There was a company in Berlin making these kind of microphones’ he says, pointing to a small pair of fuzzy stereo recording microphones pinned to the lapels of his jacket. ‘I started doing a lot of recording outside and using that, putting that in the sampler and kind of recycling it and working with the drums, more like a concrete sound approach. Then slowly I started to compose using these sounds.’

Kahn came to Beijing last month for research on a Swiss Arts Council-funded project about experimental vocal performance. While here, he has put together Drifting, a sound, voice, and text work based on random encounters with Beijing’s sounds. ‘I'm not looking for unique sounds, or exciting sounds, or ethnic sounds’, he says of his recording process. ‘It's not focusing on a historical context or on a Chinese context per se. I'm just trying to get an overall picture of the environmental ambience.’ For the finished work, Kahn will randomly arrange about 100 individual sound recordings on a four-channel speaker system, supplementing the sound with textual notes expanding on his impressions of drifting through the city based on what pulls his ear. ‘These different layers create a space which will give you a picture of Beijing in the context of sound.’

While Drifting exists in one respect as Kahn’s personal sound diary of daily Beijing experience, he stresses a deeper meaning to environmental sound that he hopes the gallery context will bring into focus. ‘The piece isn't just about sound or just about Beijing’, he says. ’It's more about helping people, or maybe reminding people to be more aware of their environment. Not in a didactic way, just as a reminder. Maybe that's the political side of the work: people need to spend less time on their phones and more time plugging in to the world.’

Jason Kahn’s Drifting is at Meridian Space from Sun 10-Thu 28. The Shijia Hutong Museum is open from 9:30am to 4:30pm, Tue-Sun.

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