The Wire JANUARY 2006 - by Don Watson



We are living in a world in which the tyranny of the visual has turned us into maladjusted creatures capable of sophisticated decoding of the stimuli of signs and symbols, but unable either to articulate or to comprehend the multiple ways in which sound contributes to our environment, our emotions, our well-being.

This was the undercurrent of David Toop's argument in a talk on sound and art, which opened China's Sound And The City project in Beijing. Co-curated by the London and Beijing operations of the British Council and also taking place in Shanghai, Chonqing and Guangzhou, the concept of the two month event is to let sound artists loose in Chinese cities, with the only proviso that the resulting artworks they produce should be public. "We wanted the events to draw from the city, but to give back to it via chance encounters with its residents," says the British Council Beijing's arts manager Colin Chinnery, once a member of Beijing experimental rock group, Xue Wei (Pressure Point, as in acupuncture).

Toop's talk was a part of the educational programme of the project, aiming to give some extra input to the already flourishing New Music scene in Beijing. A new generation is currently emerging in the city, with a deeper knowledge of Western music than their predecessors. New York's No Wave is a touchstone, so the presence of No New York producer Brian Eno caused a certain frisson, but the sound art concept is an exciting new possibility for a city whose energy and will to experiment is tangible. Surprising as it is to bump into Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld here, it makes perfect sense that he should have been motivated to move to Beijing, where he has found a combination of the creativity of the 'Geniale Dilletanten' period Berlin, with the powerful dynamic of change that occurred when the Berlin Wall fell.

Unexpectedly, David Toop also found himself talking to the Beijing Olympic Committee, who were intrigued by the notion of building sound ecology into their planning.

"People always start with legislation to prevent noise pollution," says Toop, "but what happens then is they ban the most interesting noises. Like people who buy expensive riverside apartments in London and then start complaining about the noise of barges hitting the bulwarks."

Exposure to Toop's thinking can have the effect of making you hypersensitive to sound, which can turn a walk through one of Beijing's parks into a spontaneous replication of an early Cage piece. At strategic points of the Temple Of Heaven Park in the early morning, the tinny sound of ballroom dance music overlaps with the blind erhu (two-stringed violin) player, the impromptu orchestra of harmonica players and the faint sound of the giant mop-like brush being dipped in a pond, as old men practise calligraphy with water.

Beijing's parks, with their rich soundscapes and their extraordinary focus for a range of communal activity that seems to draw from a communist sense of unity as well as from older traditions, are a central part of Sound And The City. It was Temple Of Heaven that inspired Brian Eno on an early visit to the city. Peter Cusack, who oversaw a competition for Beijing's Favourite Sound (based on his 2002 LMC CD of favourite London sounds) found himself recording the old women singing traditional songs at dawn in Jingshan Park, and David Toop's installation Beijing Water Writing, inspired by the Temple Of Heaven calligraphers, was sited in Zhongshan Park by the Forbidden City.

As the characters drawn in water fade, so many of the old Beijing sounds drawn on by Toop - street musicians, insects, birds and the cries within the hutongs or alleyways - are in danger of being submerged in the grey television static of noise that is the by-product of the brutal development of the capital city of the world's fastest growing economy.

The form of the installation reflected this concern with noise pollution, which Toop memorably describes as "an involuntary immersion therapy". The bomb-shelter-like structure, constructed in a matter of days after the tortuous process of securing official permissions had been completed, contained a bank of headphones. "If you're commenting on noise pollution," says Toop, "you don't want to be contributing to it."

Toop's interest in the place of sound to frame silence in ritual, informs the structure of his composition. As the process of transference seems to invest the sound itself with significance in a religious setting, so the hypnotic quality of Toop's pieces lend a pathos to the sounds of his collage, that clearly reflect his fascination with the complexity of the Beijing soundscape.

It's good to hear that Toop's own memorial to a time and a place will be given a permanent presence in the city's brand new Capital Museum. But there is a pathos in the reflection of just how necessary it is to capture these sounds before they fade.

Beijingers, a friend from Hong Kong tells me, are known for the natural poetry of their speech, which the contributions to Peter Cusack's Favourite Sound project illustrate. "I like the sound made by Chinese dates when they are falling on the ground in the small courtyards of Chinese traditional single-storey house," wrote Jiang Chang. "The sound of the dates falling on the basins is particularly crisp and melodious. Hearing that sound, I feel so satisfied, as if I've tasted the sweet dates. The aftertaste is so good."

Zhang Xiao Zhen, the young sound recordist assigned to capture the sound as part of Cusack's project, was intrigued less by the description, than by the percussive sound of the dates landing in the metal basins - somewhere between the ping of a crystal glass and the crash of a cymbal. Having captured it countless times on minidisc, she departed pledging to use it as the basis for her own composition.

Arriving at the Temple Of The Sun (an open-air circular structure in Ritan Park) for the launch of Brian Eno's unnamed installation, The Wire discovered a bemused Eno cursing the sense of uniformity of a Chinese technician. "The whole point is that the sixteen CDs are of different lengths, which stops the combination of sounds repeating, so that you keep hearing something different."

Suspecting that Eno had made a mistake, the technician has cut them all at the same length, thereby destroying Eno's pattern of random combinations. "Can you imagine this happening to Beethoven?" Eno jokes. "He arrives at the concert hall to discover that the copyist has converted all the key signatures to C major."

The indefatigable Colin Chinnery is on a mobile rattling away in Chinese, and within an hour a correctly cut batch of CDs has arrived by taxi. In the meantime, the Temple Of The Sun's usual assembly of aged kite fliers and intergenerational t'ai chi groups continue their recreation. "Have you ever been in a place so close to the centre of a capital city that is so silent?" asks Eno.

The switch is flicked to start Eno's installation and... nothing happens. Then a bell rings, so crisp and clear it seems inconceivable that it is emanating from one of the tiny portable CD players placed around the temple's perimeter. Familiarity with Eno's works, and the principle of random combination which has informed his installations for decades, just doesn't prepare you for the sheer beauty of what follows.

Part of the appeal is the diversity of the sounds, from high clear notes like struck cr ystal, to a deeply resonant sound, apparently created electronically (as all the sounds were) from the sound patterns that would have been emitted by the largest bell ever produced. The fact that the bell, manufactured in Russia, turned out to be too big for the laws of physics and cracked in the casting, seems somehow to add to the experience - you are listening to an impossible sound.

Which brings us to the broader implications of the word resonance. The sound seems so English - the association of church bells with an innocent and partly mythical bygone existence is deeply rooted in anyone who has come within range of the Anglo-Saxon radar. Eno himself describes bell ringing, whose mathematical complexities are an obvious fascination for him, as England's "one great musical tradition". And yet the sensitivity of the piece to its environment, the way in which it seems to frame rather than break the silence of the temple, makes it simultaneously sound Eastern. The kite flyers and t'ai chi groups carry on unperturbed, but smile and indicate their approval through translators.

As the light changes and the shadow lengthens, the atmosphere of the piece evolves. "Unfortunately, we need to turn it off at night," says Eno. "It's a shame; it would be wonderful to hear it in the dark and have to place where the sound was coming from."

But at dawn, the t'ai chi groups will gather, the installation will be switched back on. And it will all begin again.

Sound And The City events continue in various Chinese venues until June 2006