Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interview with Adam MacGregor

Adam MacGregor is a guitarist, vocalist and sound artist known to Pittsburghers as a member of local bands Brown Angel, Microwaves, Conelrad, Fate of Icarus, and Creation is Crucifixion. He also performs solo under the names Lothal and torus, and is one half of the free-improvised rock duo Orlop (founded in Beijing, China, 2013) with drummer Stephen Roach. He's also performed with Anla Courtis, Li Jianhong, Li Qing, Yan Jun, Vavabond, and Klaus Bru. He'll be performing in a special two-night event: Crucible Sound #12 this Wednesday and Thursday (December 17th & 18th) at Modernformations. 

I know that you've been in Beijing for the last couple of years. What can you tell us about the improvised music community there?

I moved to Beijing in November of 2012 for my fiance's job.  I'd done a lot of travel through Europe and India in the past, but China was a totally new frontier for me - I knew absolutely nothing about the people, language, or culture at the outset.  To stave off the shock of relocation, I figured the most obvious thing to do would be to get back to basics and seek out the things I knew best: creative music that was weird and abrasive enough to keep my interest.

It took a little bit of sleuthing and the help of some very knowledgeable American expat friends: Josh Feola, who performs as Charm and promotes shows under the Sinotronics and Pangbianr banners, and Nevin Domer, Fanzui Xiangfa guitarist, proprietor of Genjing records and COO of the influential Maybe Mars label.  As my bilingual guides (and themselves witness to the recent and very rapid development of the scene over the past decade), these two helped me to ease into what I found to be a vibrant improvised music community.

Josh used to organize a weekly improv night at a venue called School Bar under his Pangbianr (the Beijing-accented transliteration of the word for "next to") venture. He kindly booked me for a performance there as torus in March, 2013.  It was also around this time that he introduced me to Yan Jun. Yan Jun is a sound artist, writer, poet, and founder of the Subjam label who is regarded as the godfather of experimental music in China. His own music is heavily based upon controlled feedback, micro-sound, environmental recordings, and silence.  As I observed to be the case with many other artists on the scene, Yan Jun's delivery seemed to me to be more focused and measured than brash and chaotic.  I don't know if I would characterize this as a sweeping characteristic inherent to Beijing artists necessarily, but some other performers such as the modular synth/effects duo Soviet Pop (Li Qing and Li Weisi of the popular Beijing postpunk band Snapline), Liu Xinyu (guitarist of dark psych band Chui Wan, who performed solo on no-input mixer) and laptop glitch exponent Vavabond (aka Wei Wei) exhibited these affectations often.

On the other hand, there are the out-and-out cathartic blasts of free-noise saxophonist Li Zenghui and guitarist Li Jianhong, whom I had the pleasure to see many times.  Nevin once described his playing as "elemental", which is spot-on.  At his most intense, I'd compare his playing to the feedback-soaked atavism of Masayuki Takayanagi, but he manages to avoid any kind of idiomatic framework during his solos for the most part.  He frequently uses a small stone to attack the strings rather than a pick, enabling him to grind some harrowing sounds out of the strings.  Li Jianhong collaborates frequently with his wife Vavabond in two units (Mind Fiber and Vagus Nerve, the latter of which has released material on Utech); here they explore psychedelic masses of sound and so-called "environmental improvisations" where the two play together in an outdoor setting, responding to the ambient sounds from their surroundings; however, they use headphones to isolate themselves from one another.  The resulting hybrid of field-recording and free improvisation yields some interesting chance-based "interaction."

There are many other active improvisers in addition to the ones I've mentioned, many of whom take part in the Miji Concerts and improvisational workshops that Yan Jun holds frequently at a few venues around town, namely Zajia Lab and XP (a real hub of experimental music, indie rock, punk, and lots of other great local talent).  Minimalist violinist Yan Yulong (also in Chui Wan), He Fan and Zhouwang of Carsick Cars, avant-guitarist and Plunderphonics artist Feng Hao (who plays in the excellent, terrifying Walnut Room with Li Zenghui), A-Ming Liang (who performs on a type of electroacoustic contraption made out of a pedal-driven sewing machine), erstwhile P.K. 14 guitar strangler Deng Chenglong, Zhu Wenbo and Zhao Cong (multi-instrumentalists who perform solo and as no-wave duo Xiao Hong and Xiao Xiao Hong), are just a few of the folks who you're likely to see on experimental bills in Beijing.  And those are just the native Chinese musicians - Beijing is a world-class city, and as such there are many foreigners who take part.  Drummer and saxophonist Stephen Roach - who is featured in this edition of Crucible Sound - continues to be a great friend and cohort of mine in the free-rock/thrash/noise duo Orlop that we started in Beijing, late 2013.

There's another stable of artists in the Nojiji (literally, "no pee-pee") camp, who used to be based out of a venue/house (and fish hatchery!) called Raying Temple located in far-out neighborhood of Tongzhou.  This place was closed by the time I arrived, but the guys who were the core of the collective maintained a few projects and at one point set out as a nomadic troupe, traveling across China in a van and playing impromptu concerts.  These artists ranged from the harsh noise of Li Yang Yang (also the mind behind the noise-rock wrecking crew Mafeisan), to the more stark and meditative "ethno-ambient" ensemble ONG, to the dark, manipulated field recordings of Dead Sea.

In short, I was intrigued, blown away, and terribly comforted to find likeminded musicians so far from home.  And I was honored to play alongside on many occasions.  My only regret is that we didn't talk much about "process", and as a result I left with a sizeable chunk of the story absent.  But, there's always opportunities to backfill while enjoying the music at face value.

Josh Feola has written an excellent article for Tiny Mix Tapes on the history and development of experimental music in China, and covers far more ground in a much more erudite manner than I could: check it out here.

At Crucible Sound, you're going to have groups improvise along to guidelines provided by Yan Jun and Vavabond. Can you give us a preview?

At some of the improvisation workshops that typically precede the Miji Concerts that Yan Jun organizes, he'll have a guest coordinator choose parameters for the players.  I participated in one of these with Alan Courtis (Reynols), who stopped through Beijing on a China tour early this year.  This past September, Vavabond organized a monthlong residency at XP Club's "Zoomin' Night," which is a mainly free-improv program held every Tuesday night.  We collaborated using the "no-thought" guideline that she devised.  Here are some (but not all!) of the guidelines below:

Yan Jun:
One musician sits on stage. The rest sit among the audience (it will be better if they don't use a P.A. - i.e., better to produce the sound from each one's own position). The one on stage plays less (it will be better if he or she plays no sound. But definitely in a tension of playing). He or she is the first one who finishes performance. The rest have to play at least 5 more minutes after he or she leave stage (without bow).
And here are a preview of Vavabond's guidelines for Thursday; again, one group will perform according to these:
No-Brain Improvisation - A Tribute to Dogura Magura  
"Brain is not the place where thinking comes out." In the Japanese novel Dogura Magura, the doctor proclaimed. "Brain is a protein without nerve or sense." "Our spirit or living consciousness rest on each corner of our body." "All our desires, emotions, wills, memories, judgments, faith, etc, equally scattered in each of our 30 million cells."
No-brain Improvisation is an attempt to practice and prove what was told in Dogura Magura.  
Rules: DO NOT use the brain during creation and performance — try to abandon all the concepts, aesthetics, logic, thinking, judgments and decisions about sounds that are “ordered” by the brain. Let body and instinct do the job.

Orlop has just released a split tape with Slime Street on Telepathy Tapes. It will be available at Crucible Sound #12.

You can hear more of Adam’s music on his Soundcloud.

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