When talking about electronic music, most people would automatically gravitate towards highly rhythmic genres such as trap and house. However, another major genre of electronic music, ambient music, seems have escaped the public’s attention. Unbeknownst to many, ambient music has been around in China since the late 90s, along with experimental and techno music. According to numbers from our Small Antlers Database, the number of experimental music labels peaked between 2008 and 2012, with a total of 34. Yet in the following three to four years, most of them have gone silent for unknown reasons.
To our surprise, there have been new activities in the Chinese ambient music scene.
On the evening of October 20th, an ambient music concert named “Fu Liang Yi Meng: the Holy Voice and the Peony Pavilion” was hosted at the Clay and Ceramics Garden in Jingde Village. Chen Mulian, Lu Zheng, and Zhang Jianfu–three sound artists under the ambient music label Xuanyin–incorporated excerpts of Kunqu master Kong Aiping’s “A Walk in the Garden and the Interruption of a Dream” into ambient music, combined with the calm ripples on the lake, accompanied by visual artist Ding Xin’s enchanting visuals, to create an electronic music experience that created an immersive environment for the audience that left many lingering long after the show was over.
“When the song is over, when the audience has left, and when the place is quiet again, the crescent moon shines on the wall to give the followers a shadow.” This is what Huadong Normal University philosophy professor Jiang Yuhui said about the performance. He thinks that the marriage between the two art forms can really bring out their true values in the modern society. It also allows this intangible heritage to be discovered and accepted by the younger generation, and infuses modern ambient music with the soul of tradition; it is truly a new breakthrough for both genres of music.
Ambient Music in China: the “Forgotten and Untouchable Flower”
Ambient music originated in the 70s as a type of experimental electronic synth music. Some have described it as “a form of music without the limits of lyrics and form. Even though works of different composers often have subtle variations, to the average listener, this type of music is just a repeating scape of sound patterns.”
Ambient music isn’t just an artform revolving around sound; it also represents the mindset of its performer/composer. This is also reflected in Jiang’s review of the performance.
“With his intention possibly being to push what has already become a beautifully immersive experience to a new climax, the last performer, Luzheng, contrasted the mellow tones of the previous two and instead chose a very abstract yet clear-cut approach to his music. The unsettling rhythms, organic particle-like staccatos, the sudden ruptures, and the chaotic swirls–all of this released the audience from the linger for the old love story, and immersed them into the world scaped purely by sound and images.”
Due to its definition, ambient music is a fairly “hard-to-grasp” genre of music. From our conversations with Xuanyin’s founder Chen Mulian and executive Zhang Xu, they mentioned multiple times that enjoying ambient music requires a certain “threshold,” as well as a solid understanding in aesthetics and music, which has led to some difficulties in the label’s operation since its founding in 2011.
In 2011, Chen Mulian and Jiang Jian co-founded the label Xuan Yin, with its initial focus on independent, experimental, and ambient electronic music. After some deliberation and conversations with various artists, the label decided to shift its focus to purely ambient music, becoming the first of its kind in China.
In the same year, Xuan Yin organized the “Re-Charge” Music Unit experimental electronic music performance at the Chengdu Biennial Expo. In 2012, the label held a “Xuan Yin Rao Liang” (directly translating to “the holy music surrounds the beam of the house”) live performance during Beijing Design Week. It’s worth noting that it is around this time that we have noticed a sudden decline in electronic music labels in China, and for the next two years, the label largely remained dormant. It was not until 2015 that the Chinese electronic music industry started to revitalize as overseas EDM hits sent shockwaves around the globe. Millennials have also grown a very diverse palette of music, allowing experimental and ambient music to be re-discovered with room to grow.
So what caused the stagnation of ambient music between 2012 and 2015? Aside from the general “depression” of the Chinese music industry, Chen believes, the lack of high-quality performances and true music critics is also a very important factor.
In the music industry, music critics serve to bridge the gap between fans and the artists. They function like a “filter” and a “digestive system,” explaining the musical content in a much more understandable manner to the general public, guiding the average listener to interpret an otherwise complex piece of music. Chen says that most of the critics at that time only focused on rock music, and with electronic music arriving relatively late to the scene, there were only a handful of electronic music critics, let alone those that are interested in reviewing experimental genres. It seemed as though the role of critics was slowly being phased out of the music industry. This led to an awkward situation where the labels would need to directly face the audience. Without the critics bridging the gap, it made the already-abstract genre that is ambient music that much harder to understand.
Fortunately, as the Chinese music industry started to become regulated and the global entertainment industry more developed, niche music genres finally saw a second life. In the era of high media consumption, young music enthusiasts could finally enjoy a much more diversified collection of music.
Incorporating Traditional Artforms: Rebuilding the “Bridge”
In 2014, Xuanyin decided to formalize its operations, and released its first album “XY #001” consisting of entirely Chinese musicians in early 2015. In conjunction with the album release, the label also organized a two-city tour called “Xuan Yin Rao Liang–2015 Live Sounds” in Beijing and Hangzhou. During that summer, they also toured Hong Kong, Macau, Foshan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen for their “Mi Cheng Jing Xiang” five-city concert series. In 2016, Xuan Yin organized a 13-day tour in five cities across four European countries, with an accompanying documentary crew everywhere they went. This summer, Xuan Yin established a long-term partnership with One Way Space and immediately organized a live music series with “going to the lighthouse” as the theme. Furthermore, as they observed the increasing activity in the electronic music scene, they have started working with younger ambient musicians.
Xuan Yin’s October 20th performance, however, was truly something else, something never before seen in the ambient music industry.
In fact, this experimentation of combining Kunqu and ambient music had been in the works for a long time. Zan Pu Media, the company responsible for various cultural activities in collaboration with Taoxichuan in Jingde Village, had been seeking a way to combine modern art with traditional intangible heritage. Chen Mulian, on the other hand, had had plans to merge ambient music with Chinese classical music, and as a result, his label was invited to provide the musical elements for the show. After considering accessibility to the general public, the team decided on Kunqu, a widely accepted and appreciated form of traditional art. The result was more than satisfactory for all those involved, with many aspects exceeding their expectations.
This project also reinforced Zan Pu and Xuan Yin’s confidence in similar future ventures. The government has been pushing the development “specialty cultural village” projects in order to preserve regional heritage, and this form of art that allows high accessibility, as well as complexity, becomes very viable. For those that have to provide content suitable for the general audience, the element of traditional culture complements the abstractness of ambient music, allowing both artforms to be much more widely accepted. This is a very important case for the current diversification of the Chinese music industry.
Therefore, aside from preparing new compilation albums and running those lighthouse-themed long-term performances, Xuan Yin is also actively looking for other traditional art forms to combine with modern music. For example, Chen was highly interested in another traditional music genre called Nanyin, but due to the much more improvisational nature of it compared to Kunqu, it was more difficult to naturally incorporate into live ambient music performances, so a more thorough plan has to be created before such a combination can be executed.
From an operation standpoint, the core team members also have full-time jobs elsewhere, and most of the label shows and album releases are being promoted by sponsors. Due to Xuan Yin’s insistence on a high level of artistry, it is very hesitant when it comes to commercializing its operations.
Zhangxu, the youngest executive on the project, has also expressed his efforts of balancing between being an artist manager and an event organizer for the label. He wants to find investors that truly understand ambient music to help Xuan Yin reach its goals. “Currently, there hasn’t been any platforms facilitating the collaboration between ambient music and other fields. I hope Xuan Yin can become one such platform, realizing media output in the forms of live performances, artistic collaborations, and even academic content.
Translated by Kane Ge
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