Back in 2015, New Zealand label End of the Alphabet Records released the fantastic Pekak! Indonesian Noise compilation showcasing inventive experimental artists often overlooked by Western audiences. The label’s latest compilation, There Is No Music from China, also lifts the lid on a little-known scene, revealing a host of ingenious music/mischief-makers from China’s experimental arts community.
There Is No Music from China highlights underground artists creating niche works in a bustling nation. But it also spotlights a nation that’s endeavouring to balance socialism with capitalism and manage a deluge of external cultural influences and internal stresses.
All of that adds abundant creative ingredients into There Is No Music from China. But it’s also worth pointing out that unlike many Western countries with decades of avant-garde musical history to draw upon, China’s alternative music sphere is comparatively new(ish).
That brings fresh voices often operating well outside the box on There Is No Music from China, as well as unique and subversive decodings of musical texts. It’s not all boundless and unhindered adventurism for China’s underground artists though. Public, private, and political tensions mean they sometimes have to endure challenges and face consequences for questioning or critiquing prevailing norms and structures.
That said, notable opportunities have clearly arisen for experimental artists in China’s larger and more cosmopolitan cities. And There Is No Music from China certainly reflects a host of different pressures, perspectives, and possibilities from those creating outsider art.
Compiled by Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo, and mastered by noise-wizard Lasse Marhaug, There Is No Music from China is one of the strangest collections of unorthodox art/music I’ve heard. Tracks such as Ake’s in situ shithouse recording “Answer a Call of Nature”, Yan Jun’s “A Practice”, and Yao Qingmei’s “Internationale” definitely challenge conventional understandings or definitions of art or music. Mind you, pissing on the rule book is a common feature of many releases from End of the Alphabet Records.
The label is a noted eccentricity enabler, well grounded in the weird and wonderful world of musicians staking their own claim on what music and art are and/or can be. There Is No Music from China certainly exhibits plenty of bold aesthetic decisions. Especially when Liu Xinyu brings dentist-drill levels of discomfort to the piercing “Dancing”, or when Zhao Cong deals in nerve-scraping drone on “Reel”. And when Torturing Nurse mixes echoing field recordings with grotesque gargles on “Singing on the Subway”.
Elsewhere, Zhu Wenbo’s aptly bitter “Ice”, Jun-Y Ciao’s “Vibration No.1129”, and Zhong Minjie’s “AlmostNearlyProbablyVeryclose” all deliver markedly diverse examples of nonconformist art constructed from a wide array of audio sources. And one of best features of the album is how the tracklist throws one wildly divergent song after another at you.
The tonal tweaks of Li Song’s “Nib”, the haunting notes of MAImai’s “Untitled Guitar Solo #2”, and the burps and clangs of Sun Wei’s “Pipe” are all delightfully strange. But those songs become even weirder when they’re surrounded by other off-the-wall tracks that take entirely different creative routes to arrive at vastly different destinations.
Ultimately, that means There Is No Music from China is replete with outré avenues and bizarre thoroughfares that defy easy description. And that, in essence, is what makes the compilation ceaselessly captivating.
There Is No Music from China distorts the meaning of art and music and it’s also an absorbing cultural journey where Chinese and Western influences are ground up, reinterpreted and redefined. The compilation leaves me wanting to explore Chinese experimental music more, and that hunger to investigate further perfectly illustrates this album’s role as an excellent gateway release for any inquisitive or open-minded music fan.
There Is No Music from China is highly recommended for devotees of out-there (anti-)music, and genuinely surreal soundscapes. Newbies or burn-outs, dig in.