NY Arts MARCH/APRIL 2006 - by Claudia Albertini


6AM: A nerve-wrecking drilling emanates from next door which, drill by drill, gives way to the clink-clunk of hammers accompanied by the dull boom of demolition. This orchestra is the quintessence of Beijing's cacophony; the city's sonic harmony.

11AM: The bray of horns within the constant roar of traffic, accompanied by the insistent creak of old brakes.

"It's like when I open a door, the squeak could be the same everywhere in the world," says sound artist Yao Bin, representative of the space in the 798 Art District of Beijing. "No matter where you go in the world, the jingling of bicycle bells doesn't change; even the rustle of the wind seems to whisper an identical metaphor. It's your perception of these rumours that changes. It's the emotion raised by that sound that creates in us different reactions."

Experimenting at first as a sculptor, Yao Bin moved from China to Japan in 1995 and found a fertile plateaux to give voice to his acoustic creativity. The deafening sound of the speeding metropolis moved him to look for a diverse way of communicating. "I explored the connection between eyes and ears. I wanted a fusing visual music, a common language that would encapsulate the audience in a universal zone of interaction. This is the secret of sound art. This was what was needed to communicate with and provoke my audience."

5PM: The jittering tones of a mobile's keypad as SMS messages are spelled out, while the crowded flow of office workers move in and out of their places of work interspersed with the weighty candour of the elevator's sliding doors.

Midnight: The blinking flash of a neon sign stutters an advertisement for a 24-hour massage parlour. Through a window, the repetitive sigh of a fan cuddles youngsters paralysed in front of a computer screen, drugged into addictive chat forums.

The world is online. "Thanks to the internet," Yao Bin says, "we can reach the remotest parts of the world and through our hands speak with anybody. But it is the sound that disseminates a collective language."

A combination of timbers and tones, drones and creaking, the usage of these sounds is a heartening and promising example of art attempting to speak to the public. When Yao Bin came back to China this year, he was wary of encountering a Beijing audience totally unaware of this "sound art." The unexpected enthusiasm that he found in people for sound and music, and its root in the cacophony of a developing metropolis, soon silenced his scepticism. This is a country where electricity and electronics have developed into multifarious contraptions pervading everyday life at an imperceptible haste, where the latest lithium battery Nokia has abruptly replaced a tired telegraph machine in the space of a few years, and where experimentation mingles with traditional idiosyncrasies looking for a fresh shape. And day-by-day these expressions seem to become more and more sophisticated.

A clear attempt was made this Fall 2005 to transform the everyday Beijing din into public sound installations, field recordings, new media art or new folk music concerts. While Beijing's citizens are transported by Yao Bin, and his sometime sound art partner Feng Jiangzhou, to the intersection of the mental and the physical sheltered within the walls of the space, they are also invited to play the "Hidden Game" at the National Library by the experimental Mongolian music of Miquia - an avant-garde composer who innovatively uses and reinterprets traditional instruments. Also, the transience of the capital city's sound echoes within the performance of the six foreign musicians gathered together by the dynamic British Council's Sound And The City project (David Toop, Peter Cusak, Brian Eno and Clive Bell). The project asks locals to think beyond music in a innovative project materialised in a throughout-the-city event. Meanwhile, in the city's suburban halls, Li Zhenhua has curated a heartening collection of musical experimentations. In addition to these, new mixed media exhibitions will integrate different visions and forms of expressions at the beginning of 2006 in the Dashanzi Art District of Beijing (Object Cast, curated by Beatrice Leanza, at the BTAP).

The city is alive. Music and sound, past and present, dwell on the stage of everyday life and social aggregation, and the listener is left wondering where their identities diversify. "Sound art doesn't follow any rules. It is a free expression of noises, a collection of hubbubs to talk to an audience and stimulate for reactions," says Bin. "On the other hand, music has got conventions, rhythms to be based on, a scale of tones which gradually grow and reduce, and it is usually arranged in advance. Indeed, sound art is like an improvisation in theatre, it creates itself in the moment it is performed." Yao Bin believes, in fact, in the unpredictability of his sounds, which astonish the audience as they grow from very low tones to higher ones, only to suddenly halt and excite impressions in the audience. On the other side of the city, Miquia composes and combines her Mongolian ancestry and traditions with new music: unique frequencies inhabiting an anachronistic space. However, the search for a vigourous collision between the viewer and the art piece in an atmosphere of blending smells, sounds and forms is synthesised by Beijing's forthcoming exhibition Object Cast at the Beijing Tokyo Art Project. A green billiard-table installation (Andrea Gotti) becomes a site for congregation of interconnected stories that intermingle with noises, disturbances and new odours (FM3 - Zhang Jian and Christian Variant).

And the city tells us a new story about its sound and music, about its spaces and people, and about its new vibrant spatial sound environment.