Beijing Underground Experimental Music Scene You Didn’t Know About

The Daring Methods & Rising Status of Beijing’s Avant-garde Musicians

A trio of new experimental music releases from Beijing-based artists has caught the attention of music critics and enthusiasts hungry for new sounds

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5:57 AM HKT, Thu February 16, 2023 4 mins read

Think ‘avant-garde music’ is all about bizarre instruments and extreme playing methods? Then you’re right, at least with regard to Zhu Wenbo. On Four Lines and Improvisation, Zhu’s latest album, the veteran Beijing underground musician used “a speaker as a microphone, and it picked up some sounds of my mustache touching the speaker,” laughs the musician during a conversation with RADII.

The artist recently released the album via Aloe Records, a Chinese publishing label newly launched by music guru Sun Yizhou, which also recently dropped it works, an album by another esteemed Beijing avant-garde artist, Yan Jun.

While not all left-field musicians like Zhu produce ‘mustache music,’ many other Beijing musicians strive to break new boundaries in the studio and on the stage. And even if the most devout music buffs become baffled by the lengths to which experimental and improvisational artists go, some of the biggest names in China’s capital insist that daring approaches are invaluable.

Their vastly different methods and sounds need not divide avant-garde and mainstream musicians — instead, both parties should inspire one another, and meet each other halfway, to the benefit of each side, says Michael Pettis, a widely-known Beijing music guru.

After founding D-22 (nicknamed the Chinese CBGB) and later XP (a venue entirely dedicated to experimental music), Pettis recently said the following to The Diplomat: “There was an experimental component to what everyone was doing,” in reference to the fringe-y side projects launched by many mass-appeal bands under Maybe Mars, a music label he co-founded. This, says Pettis, is what “made Beijing a uniquely intellectual scene.”

Chinese music, Experimental Music, Chinese avant-garde musicians

Zhu Wenbo. Image courtesy of Zhu Wenbo

One of the esteemed pioneers from the 2010s avant-garde wave that Pettis is referring to, Zhu has been praised by everyone from Pettis (“Zhu Wenbo and Yan Jun are not just well-known musicians, but have also been key to the development of experimental music in China”) to The Wire, a renowned international music magazine that has also given Yan his props.

Zhu earned his stripes by running the Zoomin’ Night label, an offshoot of the D-22 weekly experimental showcase of the same name that led to the launch of XP. This golden period is gone now, in Pettis’ opinion. However, he’s encouraged by the fact that Sun is backing Zhu and Yan with Aloe.

“[It’s also] very important that musicians find ways of spreading their ideas and collaborations, and this is usually done through live performances and recordings,” he muses.

Sun concurs, saying, “Many friends say that every improv musician in China has one rock band, if not more! It really seems like that’s the case […] it’s the rock music tradition of the Chinese underground since the ’90s.”

Yan Jun Beijing Musician

Yan Jun. Image courtesy of Antoine Prum

Much has changed since then, especially in 2022. Covid-19 caused gig cancellations, neighborhood closures, travel restrictions, and civil disobedience, but it also prompted Sun to found Aloe Records.

“For some, it was hard enough to survive,” says Sun. “My instinctive reaction was to look outwards from myself to find some connection. I made many recordings at home, some of my own and some in collaboration with others. In the process, I slowly wanted to reduce ‘myself’ and make some releases for others. Thus, Aloe Records was born.”

As if becoming a label head wasn’t enough, Sun also dropped an artsy new release of his own called Ruin (毁了) on British label Brachliegen Tapes. Replete with electrifying noise emitted by discarded instruments, equipment, and wiring, the album brings new meaning to the phrase “on the fritz.”

Zhu, Yan, and Sun’s releases were an artsy trifecta of sorts that topped Live China Music’s (LCM) new music column in late December 2022. Because the platform is widely considered the country’s underground music bible, praise from LCM certainly holds sway. Its social media post implored its dedicated readers to check out Yan’s it works for its minimalism, live improv, and performance recording takes penned by composer Ryoko Akama.

LCM also applauded Zhu’s Four Lines and Improvisation (side A sees a composition piece while side B offers an improvisation) for its combination of clarinet, “high-frequency sine wave electronics,” and more. A self-trained clarinet player (Zhu thought an acoustic instrument would suit his budding interest in improv in 2013), the musician plays the reed instrument on the album.

Chinese music, live music in Beijing, Chinese avant-garde musicians

Image courtesy of Fruityspace

Although these three fresh releases have caught the attention of music enthusiasts hungry for new sounds from Beijing, several local venues have been fanning the embers of the avant-garde scene long after the demise of D-22 and XP.

The founder of UFO Space, a relatively new dive in the capital’s Eastside, was quoted in the same Diplomat article and shares Pettis’ enthusiasm for boundary-pushing music. Last spring, the venue hosted a buzzy experimental gig by Zhang Shouwang, famed for fronting the far more mainstream indie band Carsick Cars.

Even the owner of Dusk Dawn Club — which is outfitted with a massive and elaborately-lit stage and accommodates throngs of people — once welcomed a clarinet player during an otherwise conventional indie rock set.

But Beijing’s true fringe-mantle-bearer, according to seasoned gig-goers, is Fruityspace. The quirky nook nestled deep within Beijing’s hutongs is owned by Zhai Ruixin. He is proud to present a wide array of envelope pushers since launching the basement venue in 2016 and hopes “to see more different expressions [of music]. Even if some performances are not very well developed, they may lead to big things.”

While it is sometimes a gamble to put on experimental performances, which don’t “always lead to good memories, I will watch them with a smile,” says Zhai.

Live music in Beijing at FruitySpace

Image courtesy of Fruityspace

At this point, we have established that fringe music excites diehard music fans seeking out new sounds and inspires even mainstream musicians to take more chances while expanding their fans’ palates. According to Yan, however, making such music is equally beneficial to strictly experimental musicians like him. And despite what some skeptics might assume, such tracks also need not alienate casual listeners — on the contrary, his ethos is the exact opposite.

For some of his recordings, he has turned everyday items like battery-powered electric fans into instruments by holding them near microphones and creating the elusive — and yes, strange — sounds he sought.

“I’m not a trained player,” admits the artist, who prefers using simple equipment to create unique sounds to connect with his listeners instead of relying on off-putting elaborate setups that make harsh walls of noise.

He describes his everyman approach to improv music: “Because my improvisation is not based [on a trained musician’s] system, I take my own ‘self’ as the system. So you hear me sitting there and feeling the environment. You hear me push the button and feel the passing of time, and make a decision about the point of changing [...] I don’t know when will be a perfect time to push the button. There is no such thing. So improvisation is about observing myself facing audience, environment, and time.”

And what is it like to musically observe oneself? To that, Yan answers, “It’s the nerves, it’s challenging, it’s being happy and lost. And it’s fun.”

Cover image courtesy of Akira Saito

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