New Sound of Beijing
by Ou Ning

There have been prophesy about the "Spring of New Music" in early nineties; nevertheless, the pace of music development has seemingly been dragging behind the expectation of record industry practitioners. Although the rock of China did have Cui Jian as the leader and hero at its budding stage, bringing transitory honor to bands of the second generation, hardly did we sense any sight of spring until music lovers of China got well bred with thousands of tons of "Dakou tapes" ("Dakou" literally means "cut an opening"; Dakou tapes refer to music tapes from the West confiscated by customs authorities and clipped at the edge) and when more and more rash youngsters began to play the guitar.

While most rock bands having made their names were sinking into impotence, "music bugs" of the new generation were busying themselves assimilating various music resources in an all-pervasive way, avid and cranky. Then, there came the second half of the nineties. They suddenly changed their identities into punk guitarists playing around with their "all-purpose-three-chords", electronic music geniuses, noise experimenters, underground music editors, alternative disc jockeys, grouchy music critics and mysterious and wise commentators on the music BBS. Some of them became part of the record industry and grown into business promoters with artful tastes or idealists dreaming to build up their indie labels. It was at that time when a more popularized music culture movement originated in Beijing, and calls of this movement radiated the rounds from Beijing.

China was then gradually transforming itself into a more consumer-oriented economy. New life suddenly outspreads in the jubilance of the media and people. Internet serves as a more convenient and quicker pathway for the spread of music, and with better conditions, working on music no longer meant innumerable trials and hardships as in past days. As a result, a great number of bands emerged; they discarded outdated conventions and customs of former generations, getting closer to life and bringing new looks to the music scene.

Beijing has always been the center of rock music movements. The culture and critical spirit of Beijing in the eighties gestated the first generation of rock artists; and today, the accessibility to global information and modern lifestyle make the city a stage for neo-punks, cutie guitar pops and electronic music. Flocks of young people keep pouring into Beijing and, together with native neo-musicians, give the band culture an identification of the times.

This music culture phenomenon, so-called "New Sound of Beijing", involves two groups of people: the musicians and the audience. Most of these people, from both groups, were born in the 70s and 80s, grown up with abundant supply of Dakou tapes. They have therefore gained more "auditory experience" and developed wider range of interests as compared with their peers of the former generation. Music is but one of their hobbies and by no means represents their entire life. They never live upon abstract ideals and impracticably try to build their world above the reality. Their music, in terms of style, is a mixture of multiple music elements such as pop punk, underground punk, cutie guitar music, noise pop and experimental electronic music. They are no longer confined by the painful idea of trying to internationalize the national music of China; rather, their music fits into the international context in the first place. In terms of content, their music originates from real life, expresses independent consciousness, and advocates delightful life and reasonable hedonism. This new music culture is a result of the all-around society transformation of China in the 90s.

The concept of "New Sound of Beijing" was at first preemptively quoted by some music critics. The book is an experimental publication attempting to underline this concept verbally with visual illustration; it is also a record of and response to the calls from Beijing. We began to mastermind the book in June 1997. I was writing essays for the "Noise China" column of City Magazine, a Hong Kong-based magazine, introducing a series of new bands in Beijing. I then came up with the idea to publish a book about them, which would, from the socio-cultural angle, make observations and annotations on the rock music of China in the later half of the 90s; it would also discuss the influence of the city of Bejing on a generation of people. The book would break traditional writing routines on literary aspect; it would fall into no particular category in terms of style; it would probably follow no norm absolutely as far as editing skill is concern; photos in the book would be shot pursuant to new aesthetic criteria; artists from various fields would be invited to get involved; and, finally, with extraordinary graphic design and rarified printing, it would demonstrate an unprecedented interesting reader.

New Sound of Beijing was at first intended to be an independent publication. In August 1997, I went to Beijing alone with Yan Jun to join Nie Zheng, the photographer. We began our interview and photography work with five bands, including The Catchers in The Rye, Underground Baby, Ziyue, No. 43 Baojia Street and Zhang Chanchan. One and half years later, we were fortunate enough to gain the supports from Mr. Xiao Yuan, editor of Huanan Literature & Art Publishing House. As a result, Yan Jun, Nie Zheng and I went to Beijing again to interviewed another five more recent bands: Sober, Supermarket, New Pants, The Flowers and Fall Insex. The preparatory work was interesting though trivial: we tossed ourselves around Beijing, tracing the daily life of the musicians, calling on their families, collecting their photos taken in their childhood and their various manuscripts and doodles. We also got the chances to watch various performances, to photograph sights in the Hutong lanes, recording the busy life of the capital of China. Eventually, when I received Yan Jun's scripts and Nie Zheng's pictures, I knew we had achieved what we had wished.

Beijing: Flesh and Passion,the major literary piece in the book, contains twenty-three separate essays, all authored by Yan Jun, some of which were incisive analyses, while some were steam-of-consciousness narration; some blurred impressions about people and event, some eruption of personal emotions; some public topics, some private argots; some balderdash, and some clerical errors after drinking; there were also unfinished pieces and scripts nearly thrown to dustbin...These essays attempt to guide the readers not to read with their wisdom and to surrender their attempts to look for implications between the lines, while at the same time, bring to readers pure enjoyment of reading through rummy arrangement of words, expressions and sentences. I personally believe that these pieces are the best of Yan Jun's writing; they demonstrate Yan Jun's multi-dimensional talent as a poet, novelist, "web bug" and music critic. Nie Zheng's photography also met my expectations. The wonderful feature photos of all the covered bands not only broke the conventional composition rules but also adequately captured the expressions of the musicians. The greatest of all were those snapshots about the life in Beijing; examples include the reeky oil wok in the Gulou Market, the running kid on the removal site near Fulong Temple, the middle-aged man enjoying the cool air at the doorway in Shichahai Hutong Lane, etc. These pictures give the book a lively reflection of the city life of Beijing.

In order to further demonstrate the music culture of the 90s, we asked Ling Yun to write us an article: Beijing Story, talking about his experience in Beijing as a music lover and music media professional. We also asked Daiqiu to download from the Grand China BBS an online piece accounted in a "Dakou" youth's own words. The sentimental lines reflect the emotion of a generation: "I see. Our adolescence life has been clipped long time ago. It was a time to remember, a 'clip-edged' time for us. "

Before we started our graphic design, we collected lots of works by other photographers and artists to add to the graphs and articles we already had, each of which was somehow relevant to Beijing. We used a sort of collage approach to arrange these materials. It was similar to DJing: when the basic rhythm and flow are set, we randomly added audio samples at some parts, and repetitions to other parts. All the materials are arranged randomly in order to evoke new possibilities. There is no traditional concept of chapter nor particular order in the book; there is only a vague venation clued in the table of contents (which is not in the traditional sense either, but merely a list of materials used; it doesn't mean to indicate the sequence of content arrangement.)

What the book pursues, in respect of graphic design, is aesthetic simplicity and the tensile force of page layout. In order to pop out the characters' images while maintaining the original style of photography, we hardly used any special effect available with Photoshop to process the photos, or cut or overlap the photos or whatsoever; we tried to minimize the decorative lines and elements. We used quite a lot of full-page photos and blank spaces in order to enhance the co-relationship among different pages. The text of the book is not for mere literary purpose, but is also expected to bring visual pleasure: their fonts and arrangement are contributive to the overall effect of the book. I like the classical Song typeface for Chinese, while for English, I mainly use the Arbitrary series, which provide perfect strikes and shapes of letters. The color style of the book is a combination of my perception of the Neville Brody and inspiration from some books of the 50s'-60s' which I got in Panjiayuan (a well-known flea market in Beijing for antiques). It is decayed on one hand, and revolutionary on the other. As for paper and printing, I prefer rough types of paper that tend to absorb lot of ink. There is a compromising process in the collision between these kinds of paper and colors, which makes you realize the subtle saturation of time...

1999, Shenzhen

Translated from Chinese by Simon Young

 

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