July 27, 2009
For a certain sort of someone, a documentary on Japanese composer-musician Yoshihide Otomo--especially one that features the likes of Yasunao Tone, Yamataka Eye, John Zorn, Christian Marclay, Tatsuya Yoshida, Jim O’Rourke, and Keiji Haino--should be heaven on earth.
Franck Stofer, co-owner the always-interesting Sonore label would seem to be just that sort of someone. Thus, the disappointment evident in his review of Chikara Iwai's new Kikoe is not a good sign concerning this feature-length film. Judging from the review and the trailer below, Iwai takes a quick-cut, pastiche approach that favors sensibility over sense. When it comes to what are, to most, relatively obscure subjects such as noise and electro-acoustic improv, a more linear approach would probably be more edifying.
But then again, those of us who are into this sort of thing will probably watch it no matter what.
(Via the new Sonore blog.)
July 23, 2009
Mic check, 1-2... For those of you who keep old, dusty feeds in their news readers, hello! Here I am, a blast from the past ready to get this Far East Audio thing rolling again. Fatherhood and grad school had me put the site on hold for quite some time, but as I prepare for a three-week trip to China in August, it's time to see if this ancient version of Movable Type can still pump bloggage.
So, if you've got the feed, stay tuned. If you're visiting by chance, subscribe or check back throughout August, as I'll be visiting the venues, record shops, and junk markets of Shanghai and Beijing. Look for some interviews with Chinese and Laowai musicians as well.
And if you've got any tips or requests for stories, let me know. I'm at your service.
January 13, 2009
Just in time for the Western holiday season, Christiaan Vivrant and Zhang Jian (aka FM3) released a sequel to their Buddha Machine, the mass-produced musical art object that so delighted fans of audio gadgets and avant-garde music. Although the ambient looper has become familiar to enthusiasts since its 2005 release, its origins in Asian spiritual technology are perhaps not as well known. As the Buddha Machine’s name suggests, small boxes containing loops of Buddhist prayers (sutras) have been used by believers in East Asia for quite some time. I first heard a “talking sutra box” in Taiwan in the early 90s, found it fascinating, and have managed to collect a few of them over the years. Vivrant and Zhang found these devices so compelling that they tracked down a Chinese factory to commission new versions that played the duo’s own original loops.
As I usually write about live shows or CDs, the Buddha Machine II provides a welcome chance to do something different. In the spirit of the “shootout” between competing products found on tech review sites, I thought I would compare the Buddha Machine II to two similar (but non-secular) products that are currently available online. In true Buddhist fashion, however, it was only moments after turning these boxes on that the Buddha boxing match became a love in—the three sounded so good together that any sort of competition became irrelevant. I have interspersed this review with Youtube videos of the boxes at play.
Buddha Machine II (L) at play with Taiwanese (R) and Tibetan (top) chant boxes.
Like its predecessor, the Buddha Machine II erodes the distinction between musical instrument, playback device, and recorded musical performance. It is a small, plastic speaker box containing a digital chip loaded with several short, minimalist musical pieces. Each track is looped and can be listened to as long as one likes (or until the AA batteries run out), while a single button allows the user to switch between loops. In a sense, the Buddha Machine is an album that plays itself, unlike an LP or MP3, which require separate devices for playback. However, the unit is also designed as performance instrument, and has been used as such by Zhang and Vivrant’s own FM3, as well as Low, Sun O))), Mike Patton and others. As an instrument, the new version of the Buddha Machine II is greatly improved by a new pitch bend wheel, which allows the user to adjust the pitch and tempo of the loops to match other material.
The loops themselves do a lot with very little. Simple guitar and piano lines, immersed in strange resonances, vibrate out of the box. FM3’s use of feedback is particularly interesting, as it is impossible to discern whether the distortion is coming from the source material, the low-bitrate of the reproduction, the tiny speaker being over-driven, or some combination of the three. I find that this mystery, as it repeats itself over and over, begins to smear my sense of place as my consciousness switches back and forth between the speaker in the room with me, the idea of the crunchy silicon chip, and some imagined space in China where FM3 recorded these evocative sounds. Zhang and Vivrant resist the temptation to over-embellish these tiny compositions, nor do they attempt to prescribe a particular emotional response. The pieces are ambiguous enough to shift from beautiful to ominous and back again as minutes pass by, perhaps reflecting the mind of the listener more than the intentions of the performers.
FM3's Buddha Machine II meets a Taiwanese Buddhist sutra box, creating something like an Enya, Jesus and Mary Chain. Toward the end, I remove the chant box so you can hear the BMII's feedback loop.
This Taiwanese Chant box features 13 renditions of sutras, most of them done in a contemporary, syncretic musical style that reveals both traditional Chinese and contemporary pop influences. The sound is that of a slickly produced digital recording that has been bit-mashed and fed through a crappy speaker, making it the new millennial equivalent of an AM transistor or shortwave radio tinkling out a carefully crafted Carpenters tune. (If Karen was high on Buddhism instead of pills, of course.)
If you’re anything like me, the above description, coupled with the $9.30 price tag, has you sold already—and I haven’t even mentioned the swirling lightshow. In the front of the box is a circular cutout that houses a semi-transparent image of the bodhisattva Guanyin sitting on a lotus flower. Behind her, a swirling, kaleidoscope of rainbow light beams emerges in a mesmerizing 3-D effect. Everyone I have handed this thing to has stared helplessly at it for minutes at a time.
FM3's Buddha Machine II meets a Tibetan sutra box, which features a traditional chant rather than a modern musical adaptation of a Buddhist prayer. The loop on the BMII is a guitar that seems to toll like a bell in the context of the chant.
This box is smaller than the two others and includes a strap to hang it from your neck. The strap, coupled with its headphone output, means that you can rock these gritty Tibetan prayer loops on the subway or bus. The iPod drones will eye you with curiosity and envy when you sport these two inches of plastic chant bling, embossed with a distinctive lotus-shaped speaker. The loops on this box keep it old school, with a monk chanting a cappella—no synths, melodies or other musical trappings. At a mere $4.00, it is a must-buy for believer and non-believer alike.
March 30, 2008
If most backpackers are mainly sightseers, Jason Kopec is a soundhearer. Instead of a camera, his primary method of capturing memories is a microphone and field recorder, and he releases his sonic catches from Burma and China in his Ground Up series of discs. (That said, Kopec does also carry a camera and his pictures are beautiful--you can check out both sounds and images on the website of his label, noise|order.)
Kopec calls himself an audio ethnographer, a fact that might draw the ire of cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists--not necessarily because he lacks a particular degree, but because his discs lack ethnographic detail. Release the Cheerfulness China: Ground Up 2 contains lovely music and fascinating sounds, but even less contextualizing information than you'll find on your average Sublime Frequencies disc. This lack of context is not surprising, given the producer's fascination with the ways that the familiar sounds of one culture take on new meanings for a visitor from another: Kopec's works are less ethnographies than the audio travel diaries of a self-confessed "sound junkie." I recently asked him about his travels and favorite timbres.
We could start by me asking you what your background is and how you came to travel around China with a microphone and a field recorder...
Well, I'm at heart a sound junkie. I've never been that interested in taking photographs as a way of artistically capturing a feeling, place or person, so my interest in field recording and phonography was in a way inevitable. I began seriously recording in the field in 2000 when I was in South Africa. I had been bouncing around the globe for a spell, and had heard so many amazing sounds that I became more and more interested in the idea of capturing them for future use. After hearing a Kurdish folk group in Van, Turkey give their first public performance after a seven year government crackdown on the PKK and all Kurdish activity, I knew I HAD to get something to start recording such moments. My next major destination happened to be South Africa, so while there I bought a mini-disc recorder and a cheap Sony stereo microphone. I started turning it on at various times when something of interest was happening around me, be it music or an engaging sound.
I then ventured to Burma and became much more focused on my effort. I no longer approached travel as a predominantly visual adventure, but more a sonic one. While there I had so many incredible experiences recording that I managed to amass enough material to put together an album ("Burma 1 - Ground Up 1" on my label noise|order). Burma was the first time I literally spent days walking around a town looking for music and musicians. Since the interactions and situations that resulted from that effort were so enjoyable, it prompted a whole new style of travel and documentation for me. Now I always search incessantly for music and interesting sounds wherever I go, and my previous experiences have allowed me to get much more bold in my approach.
I've now traveled extensively in over 40 countries and have been recording material everywhere I've been since 2000.READ FULL ENTRY...
March 12, 2008
Marvin Sterling, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Indiana
University and author of the forthcoming "Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan" will speak at IU on Monday, March 17 from 4:00-5:30 p.m. Location: Student Building 159.
It looks to be a fascinating talk. Check the abstract:
"Race and ethnicity in the Jamaican response to the Japanese reggae boom"
In the early 1990s, roots reggae music flourished in Japan. Later in
the decade, a more recent style of reggae, dancehall, began its own
ascent towards achieving "boom" status in the country. In many ways
dancehall has come to eclipse the success of roots reggae only a few
years before. As a measure of this success, in 2006, Yokohama Reggae
Festival attracted about 30,000 Japanese reggae fans, filling Yokohama
Stadium and making it very likely the largest one-day reggae event in
the world. Much of the success of dancehall in the country can be
attributed to excitement surrounding recent Japanese victories in
international competition otherwise dominated by Jamaican reggae
artists. As such, more and more Jamaicans have become aware of the
intense Japanese interest in dancehall and roots reggae. In this paper
I argue that Japanese engagement with reggae and the Jamaican response
to this engagement might be productively read in ethnic and racial
terms. I argue that Japanese engagement with reggae affords
perspective on the Japanese construction of ethnoracial identity and
difference in the two countries, in ways that might be seen as
ultimately speaking to ethnoracial identity in Japan. I also argue,
focally, that the Jamaican response to this engagement represents a
perspective from which to view the Jamaican imagination of its status
as a postcolonial nation in a rapidly neoliberalizing globe.
By "international competitions," I wonder if Sterling is referring to things such as the International Dance Hall Queen competetion held in Montego Bay, which was won by Japanese dancer Junko in 2002. When a white Canadian woman known as Moo Moo won the competiton in 2007, some Jamaicans responded by "throwing bottles and other objects on stage."
Online responses to Moo Moo's win, written in rasta patois, also reveal identity concerns and an anger that extends to Japanese dancers:
How a white oooman win this sh*t are they trying to take over dance hall queen now it gone to the wolves SHAMBLES FOR LIFE
yes same wit japanese dem cant dance all dem can do is jump and spin on deh head and dats not dancing,di white ooman has no ryhthm at all,i was deh and ah pity dem try comercialize dancehall so dem give it to white ooman,she cant dance at all shes terrible,real bad u see her dance at last years,it was the worst
Of course, these kind of tensions often emerge when a the "cultural expression" of a local group becomes a "cultural product." The pride of seeing one's culture gain the world stage is often made bittersweet by the fear of losing it as one's own. It should be interesting to get the perspective from the Japanese side of the coin (as Sterling presents it).
March 07, 2008
I have a new article online in Folklore Forum, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to “the free exchange of ideas on the cutting edge of folklore, folklife and ethnomusicology.” “Liminal States: Life as an Indie Musician on Taiwan,” centers on the life and music of Huang Wan-ting, a founding member of grrl punkers Ladybug who I profiled a few years back on this site.
In the article, I use the concept of liminality (coined by the great anthropologist Victor Turner) to examine ways Wan-ting exists in between some of the recognizable identities people use to identify one another. On the level of national identity, for example, she considers herself Taiwanese and is frustrated by the fact that the world refuses to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. She feels trapped between the identities of “Chinese” and “Taiwanese,” disempowered. On a level of musical identity, however, Wan-ting maintains a liminal state on purpose, as it empowers her creatively. As an indie musician, she stays on the edge of the music mainstream, making styles of popular music that are not yet popular (and may never be). This status on the edge of popular music identities gives her the freedom and power to play with new ways of sounding and being.
I’m particularly pleased that this article came out in a special issue that honors recently retired Indiana University professor Roger Janelli, a great scholar of Korean folklore and folklife. In fact, it was in a class of Professor Janelli’s that I first started developing these ideas. I haven’t met a better teacher or a nicer guy.
February 25, 2008
When people tell me that Asian music has become "westernized," one counter-argument I toss out is the fact that so many instruments played by western musicians are made in the East. Particularly in the case of electronic instruments, in which potential sounds and rhythms are often predetermined by programmed "presets," I would argue that global pop music has been Asianized. For instance, entire genres of music have coalesced around the TR-808 drum machine, created by Japan's Roland Corporation.
The Asian manufacture of "western" instruments predates the synthpop era, however. For example, according to today's piece on NPR's Morning Edition, Taiwan began producing and exporting saxophones shortly after World War II. By the 1980s, the island was building roughly a third of the world's saxes, mostly lower-quality student models. Today, spurred on by Chinese competition for the low-end market, the Taiwanese sax is increasing in quality and global reputation. Says one American player:
"You would never have thought of Taiwanese instruments trying to inch into the pro territory. But they are. And they are making some really nice horns."
February 22, 2008
This isn't the sort of music I usually cover (how many times have I written that on this site?), but I was struck by something in the video below. In it, a huge and rapturous Chilean crowd thrills to the operatic, hard/soft, early 80s rock of Journey, a band that provided aural backdrop for many a sixth-grade love drama when I was at summer camp.
But it wasn't so much nostalgia for my youth that made this clip so affecting. Rather, this video gave me a momentary flash of popular music's astonishing reach through space-time and its emergent role as a sort of global connective tissue made of music, emotion and technology. How else could a Filipino club singer end up fronting this famed and aging North American rock band on a South American stage in 2008?
[Keep reading below the video.]
Marx and Buddha
Though I subscribe to neither of the religions that bear their names, two of my favorite thinkers are Karl Marx and Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha). Both men emphasized that what we perceive as stable and separate--things such as the history of a nation or the identity of an individual--are in reality enmeshed in, and dependent upon, the constantly changing material conditions from which they arise. Marx saw these changing material conditions the "means of production" and sought to reduce suffering by adapting social conditions to suit them. Buddha, on the other hand, thought suffering could be alleviated only through the total acceptance of the interconnectedness and impermanence of one's life and surroundings. Both would agree that trouble arises when we adopt an ideology that doesn't "go with the flow" or "change with the changing times."
On the political left and right, people in the United States are currently getting confused by just this sort of limiting ideology, reacting with xenophobia and protectionism to the sometimes frightening changes brought by globalization. These folks would do well to throw a little Marx and Buddha into their mix--to not fight change, but instead fight to make that change equitable.
Schon and Pineda
Journey guitarist Neal Schon saw Filipino singer Arnel Pineda fronting his Manila cover band on You Tube and--in an inspired act of musical outsourcing--hired him as the band's new singer this past December. A long-distance, high-profile connection like this draws a lot of attention, but it is only a single example of the kinds of connections that music constantly creates and draws upon.
This video is an object worthy of our contemplation. Consider the materials and relationships that went into its creation: African musical elements of rhythm and timbre, European harmonic sensibility, synthesizers and effects boxes developed in Japan and built in China, American technologies such as the electric guitar the internet, the food the performers ate the night of the show, the roads they traveled to get there... This just begins to tell the story of how a piece of culture such as this video reaches your eyes and ears.
Like it or not, everything local is global as well. A popular music performance both embodies and represents the journey culture makes through the world. Or put another way, it takes a planet to create a corny-ass love song. There are other more damaging ways to spread cultural forms, such as military imperialism and terrorism. We need to study and promote the types of cultural flow that make people happier. I'm not saying that there are no downsides to economic and media globalization, but there is no way to disconnect from the world. We should focus on making our connections as positive as possible.
On an aesthetic level, the positivity of Journey's musical contribution is certainly arguable. But hey, they sure dig it in Chile.
February 13, 2008
As we ring in the Rodential Lunar New Year, my friend Stuart celebrates a personal milestone--two years of posting obscure global oldies at his site Radiodiffusion Internasionaal. If you haven't been downloading his digitized found sounds, you've missed out on over 100 weeks' worth of 60s pop singles from Central, South, East and Southeast Asia.
This week the site features two tracks by the Stylers, an instrumental band from Singapore who dealt in "non-stop dancing music." Stuart asked me to lay down a little background on this rather obscure genre, as I'm a bit of an aficionado. Here's what I came up with:
Non-stop instrumental dancing records go at least as for back as the 1950s orchestral work of Germany's James Last. Non-stop ballroom has had a lasting influence in East and Southeast Asia. (In the mid-1990s, I purchased a wonderful cassette in the Philippines called "Non-Stop Cha Cha Extravaganza," for example.) However, it is the Asian version of the "A Go-Go" pop medley sound that has captured the imaginations of Western record collectors in recent years. Influenced by instrumental rock groups from the US and UK, the 60s teen scenes of Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore produced numerous dancing albums. These albums often retained the ballroom sensibility of listing the intended dance styles next to the track titles (A Go-Go, Blues, Fox Trot, Cha Cha, etc.), but relied on a rock line-up of bass, drums, guitar and organ. As for the songs performed, Western pop hits, regional pop hits and even traditional folk melodies were all fair game.
By the 1970s, surviving instrumental bands like The Stylers seem to have gotten more ambitious, incorporating into their albums film themes, sound effects, "hi-fi" production values, and musical elements of the emerging disco sound. By this point, non-stop instrumental albums were less a teen dance phenomenon than they were fodder for the high-end stereo equipment of Asian audiophiles.
To hear the music and get more information on the Stylers and Asian A Go-Go (including many informative links), go to this week's post. You only have until Sunday morning...
September 25, 2007
Otgonbayar Chuluunbaatar and Wolfgang Hofer | Zastiin Nogoodoi |Zakhchin Music | Mongolia
At the tail end of the second millennium, father and son John and Alan Lomax traveled the rural south of the United States collecting the last vestiges of music transmitted solely by way of mouth in that part of the world. Ironically, the means of their effort--the technologies of motorized transport and sound recording--were also the means of "pure" folk music's demise. These harbingers of modernity came later to much of the world, and in the third millennium there are still Lomaxes out there trying to catch the last drops of musical streams running dry.
Western Mongolian singer Otgonbayar Chuluunbaatar is one of these. As the youth of her Zakhchin tribe, which numbers only 25,000, move from the steppes to the cities, blending with the Khalkha majority and listening to popular music, they break with the oral tradition of Zakhchin songs. Chuluunbaatar has made it her mission to collect these songs, which she says have never been transcribed or studied.
On Zastiin Nogoodoi, the third in a series of Zakhchin music she has produced, Chuluunbaatar sings more than 30 "short" and "long" songs--so described not because of their total length, but for the way the long songs stretch out syllables. Unaccompanied or with the simple companionship of Wolfgang Hofer's guitar or Altaic lute, her strong, emotive voice brings to life tales of mountains, drunkards and horses.
Her voice is the voice of a thousand voices before her, filling a space where silence may otherwise have been, providing a glimpse of the soul of a people you may otherwise have never known. Once again, the hand of technology cuts off a cultural stream, then casts its droplets out to unexpected places, far and wide.
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