The Mountain Swallowing Sadness
ang Changcun’s “Unhearable” is the first piece of Chinese electronic music that many non-Chinese heard in 2003. His tune opens China: The Sonic Avant-Garde, a groundbreaking compilation of Chinese sound art and noise experimentalists. That song title is a lie, though. The punk charbroils digital audio into hailstones of static noise. Faint melodies and sounds like bells and sped-up chipmunk vocals later float to the din’s surface and then drown. It was Changcun’s work with the China Sound Unit that made the record for me, though. The group’s members documented mundane, peculiar, and government-propagated sounds in cities across China: shouting auctioneers fighting for customers’ ears, a family singing an old revolution song after dinner, and women singing about the Chinese army uniform. The China Sound Unit’s sharp ears have intrigued me for years since.
Changcun belongs to the 90’s generation of Chinese musicians who bypassed government cultural restrictions, and absorbed outside music through Internet file-sharing and black-marketed Western CDs that were originally shipped to China for disposal. A few underground Chinese artists are now impacting the West. Last year, Beijing ambient group FM3 released the Buddha Machine, a music box of nine haunting loops. Chinese-American artist Dajun Yao released the China compilation on his Post-Concrete label and then connected artists like Changcun to perform together in China’s first experimental music festival, Sounding Beijing 2003. A few years ago, Yao told me that China’s electronic music scene is too minuscule for its government to care about. If that’s true, then Changcun’s album and recent European tour are simply exports of one’s lived experience in China, and not salvos fired against the Ministry of Culture.
Changcun explores an imaginary place, and later watches a soul ascend to Heaven in the two tracks of his newest album, The Mountain Swallowing Sadness. In his liner notes, he wrote that the first track, “Grand Hotel” aims to “erect a building in the ear.” He mentioned that place for him is a “hotel.” Yet, he demolishes all structure for 40 minutes in his blistering collage of white noise and machine noises invading the air. Loud samples of jetliner engines and shortwave radio static singe the ears in the first few minutes. Changcun then breaks the dam—wave after wave of wailing electricity pours through and saturates the ear. His control of timbre and pulsating rhythm is often deft, rivaling Merzbow and Hecker. Nonetheless, “Grand Hotel”’s 40 minutes are too abrasive and overwhelming to handle for a full listen. I can only imagine Changcun’s hotel dissolving brick by brick, the bedroom ceilings cracking open for the rain to pour through. The following, “King of Image 1995” is relatively simple, but much more profound. The entire 16-minute track is recorded from a videotape of a stranger’s 1995 funeral. A groups of nuns chant along to a woodblock beat; their hypnotic mantra first saunters and then gradually quickens. Changcun wrote that the chanting nuns are “supposed to help the dead man go to Heaven” in their ancient ritual. The recording has the same sense of letting oneself be enveloped in sound like “Grand Hotel.” However, the latter track uses the modern world’s audio violence to trap the listener, while the nuns help the listener escape to a peaceful sanctuary.
Listen to sound samples from The Mountain Swallowing Sadness here.
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-06-21