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BEIJING — Feng Hao speaks with a firm and straightforward attitude. He does not like long sentences, nor does he enjoy the elliptic dialectic typical of Chinese speech. He listens carefully to my questions and takes his time before answering them. Then he resumes his thoughts in a short statement that leaves very little room to compromise. His conversation rhythm is unpredictable, sharp and syncopated. He tests you without being indulgent or impolite and if you are not bluffing, he will warmly rescue you from the corner where he just pushed you. He simply won’t play around on the surface of things, yet he is ready to engage further, if you want to.
Feng Hao is one of the first independent experimental musicians on the Beijing scene; with his band Walnut Room, he has a new album called Lost Appearance debuting on April 20 with a performance at Beijing’s Za Jia Art Lab. He was trained as a painter in the 1980s but quickly, he “felt that painting was too limited in terms of spatial relationships and not direct enough.” “Music was the closest thing to me and I needed to elaborate on space, so it was the perfect tool. I decided to start painting with music,” he said. Hao arrived in Beijing in 1999 from his hometown in Anhui province, and for a while he listened to all kinds of music. He started a punk-rock band, but quickly again felt constrained by the rules of rock and music genres. When I ask the obvious question, “So is this when you became interested in experimental music?” his answer nails me to my logic “No, I did not have any idea about what ‘experimental’ meant at the time, I just wanted something larger, more real and more honest. Life is more important than art; art is just a tool.”
Feng told me that art provided the inspiration for his new music. “I thought about Kandinsky and how he focused on the nuclear elements of painting, shape, line, and color. I focused all my attention on sound, pure sound, because sound is the root of all music.” He quit his band and just strolled around listening to any kind of music, concerts, and bar gigs. He said he wanted to be in the audience for a while, as he was also uncomfortable with musicians’ egos and posturing, things that contaminated pure sound and its potential. In 2000, Feng Hao and a friend made their first demo, called WF. This seminal work later became well known in the underground music scene.
WF is a no-compromise work, Feng said. “It was about the sound, about the music … We did it and put two CD sets of 100 pieces in a city shop and then forgot about it. We did not care if we could have a performance or not.” That no-worries attitude is typical of experimental music, particularly in China — it was a long-time necessity. With an average audience of five to eight people for five to six musicians, the first performances probably looked like an obscure exchange between individuals who did not ask themselves why they ended up there.
“Once, the audience was just two men in their 40s, managers. They took off their shoes and watched the whole show without saying anything, then, without saying anything, they put their shoes back on and left. We played before and after rock bands, punk bands … People simply came to these underground bars to drink a few bad beers or bad wine in peace; they really didn’t give a damn if the bands pooped or peed on the stage. We did not have a message and we did not care about the audience reaction,” Feng explained.” It was the time of the Hao Jun Jia bar, a concert in Nu Ren Jie[, a street in Beijing]. We did not understand what we were doing and we did not want to understand it. Neither did the people who came to listen to us.”
“We did like that feeling, of making people uncomfortable. It made us feel different, and different somehow sounded like ‘free.’ We were in this strange place doing strange things for no reason apart from that of exploring sound and not doing what everybody else was at the time. Then I learned that what we were doing was called experimental music, and that there was a long history of it in the west. So I became interested in it, I wanted to know more.”
When he first started performing with his laptop, the whole thing seemed odd and confusing to the owners of the bars he played in and, to a certain extent, to Feng Hao himself. “It looks more like an accountant checking his archive. It took me sometime to get used to this and feel comfortable.” Yet when he is on stage, Feng handles the crowd quite well, playing on his quiet but sharp presence and on the use of small gestures and dramatic pauses. I recently saw one of his gigs and couldn’t stop laughing, watching how he directed the audience between highs and lows, fun and suspension, rough walls of sounds and unusual explorations of noise and melody.
Around the time Feng started in on his experimental music, a movement was forming of Chinese Experimental Music. Groups of musicians started to use traditional Chinese instruments and incorporate them into avant-garde sounds. Their approach was easily identified, and their virtuosity gained them fame. For Feng Hao it felt like falling into a stereotype, with all the restrictions and clichés that he had tried so hard to avoid. This is when he started to explore sound collage, a form where a mix of accidents, humor, and provocation allows him to disrupt the Chinese Experimental Music aura and re-establish the anarchic mode that puts sound at the core of the experimental experience, wiping out hierarchies and taste.
One specific piece, a remix composed of various national anthems, marks the beginning of a new phase in which Feng Hao (under the moniker DJ Strauss) starts to care about the audience. After a session at What Bar in 2011 during which he played the collage along with another of organic body sounds called “Pleasure,” he recalled how the audience remained wordless. After a couple of days, he received a message online from a guy who was among the listeners. “You are an idiot!” it simply said.
For Feng, this was a sign that he was going in the right direction: People could not simply dismiss his work, and even if they were not able to enjoy it, they felt touched to the point that they need to insult him. Since then, the musician has played a subtle game of provocation and seduction with the audience, a fragile and difficult strategy that attracts more people to live experimental music gigs in Beijing and elsewhere. He keeps avoiding all the Chinese clichés, and yet exactly because of his attitude, Feng is slowly defining a style that incorporates deeper and less obvious Chinese elements into his music, meeting the influences of his sources of inspiration, musicians like Diamanda Galas, Einsturz ende Neubauten, Nine Inch Nails, Fred Frith, and Derek Bailey.
What catches me in Feng Hao’s music is the way it transforms the concert space and the impact it has on the audience. I still think of him as a plastician, a painter, and sculptor of sound. Then there is the freshness and surprise his presence fills the air with, turning a gig into a happening. Like few other underground artists, Feng would use any medium and context to try and make something different happen, to shake things up and involve a wider audience. By not staying too long on one single register, shifting from serious to ludic, from triviality to sophistication, he creates a territory where an alternative practice generally supported only by a few becomes a moment of free expression and do-it-yourself creativity.
Feng Hao’s gigs challenge the rules and habits of the status quo, encouraging independent thinking, ironical criticism, and free will. It is an honest and subtle energy with an intelligent and subversive edge. The musician is out there, and he simply won’t back off.
Feng Hao’s work is featured in the UBUweb collection and several other online platforms and websites, including Myspace and Douban. Feng has a new album called Lost Appearance debuting on April 20 with a performance at Beijing’s Za Jia Art Lab (Hong En Daoist Temple in Dongcheng).