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In “High-Strung” China, the Importance of Ambient Music is Growing

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It’s chaos out there — not just in the physical sense as the world cumbersomely adjusts to a pandemic and its many repercussions — but also mentally, where echo chambers are filled with panic, fear, and noise. The world is louder than ever, which means that there hasn’t been a more opportune time to switch off and slip into the comforting world of ambient music in China.

While China’s avant-garde scene has always occupied a compact yet active space within the community, from the abrasive noise of Torturing Nurse to the more esoteric conceptional innovation of musician Yan Jun, its ambient scene has only seen spurts of vitality since the turn of the century.

 

Some notable outliers have been electronic duo FM3 (made up of Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant) whose Buddha Machines were “calm in a box.” Their wild popularity internationally in the late ’00s belied the meditative and intimate headspaces within the music. Then there’s veteran musician Dou Wei (former vocalist of formative Chinese rock band Black Panther, ex-husband to pop icon Faye Wong and father to Leah Dou) who after two decades transitioned from rock star to prolific experimental artist and hasn’t looked back since.

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Yet, over the past four years, as the music industry has gradually become richer both commercially and in its diversity, ambient music, a genre frequently enjoyed for its command of atmosphere and texture, has found a stronger foothold in China. As Demone He, the head of recently-founded ambient label Sound Blanc (simply known as 白, or white in Chinese) suggests, “These conditions have pushed musicians to consider their musical form — inspiring them to pursue more artistic, personalized and self-directed music […] a manifestation of the progress and gradual prosperity of social civilization.”

Since its founding in late 2018 by local mega-label Modern Sky, Sound Blanc has become one of the driving forces behind the resurgence in ambient music across China, curating events in museums and organizing festivals, including last year’s Picnic Festival on the outskirts of Chengdu.

Currently, they’re keeping themselves busy with a weekly live ambient stream via Chinese streaming site Bilibili, and plan to release at least 10 albums in 2020. While He is perhaps best known for his magnetic house and techno sets and his makeshift live electronica act Hielektromen, the Beijing native has always had an ear for the attributes that make ambient music so essential to our musical diet, explaining how, “Like the white space in Chinese art, it allows people to fill in that space with abstractions.”

 

These qualities are at the forefront of the sublabel’s debut release, Blanc Live 01 — a collaboration between Beijing-based electronic producer L+R and pioneering Shanghai sound artist Wang Wenwei, two artists who He considers to be the genre’s most influential.

Recorded live at Modern Sky’s studio in the capital, the album acts as an improvisational “game of chess” played out between atmosphere and transcendence and utilizes everything from granular module synthesizers to reverb-heavy guitar drones to build and explore the vast aural architecture within.

As L+R (Wang Lu) says of his collaborator: “Wang Wenwei has a very strong perception of music, and he can find details in my sounds and connect freely with it. His music is quite similar to painting, and he’s good at using the relationship between points, lines and planes, as we communicate and interweave with each other.”

Wang Lu, whose other musical duties include performing with live electronic band Yao, collaborating with guzheng (traditional Chinese zither) musician Yu Miao, and producing electro-pop music for the masses, acknowledges how the elusive, transformative genre is in many ways “incomplete.” “It is the thoughts that are generated in your heart, and directly transmitted into the sound and the listener’s feeling at that moment […] but it changes and disappears instantly. There are no rules, no patterns, and not even a concept, just an idea.”

This ever-shifting philosophy at the center of the genre manifests itself according to the creator. From the meditative drone of artists such as Beijing-based Solent and Shenyang’s Pool of Light, who weave abstract realms of sound into something akin to the sonic equivalent of a vigil, to the more sprawling, frigid and post-rock leaning work of Xie Yugang (of prominent Dalian band Wang Wen) and Wuhan-bred Hualun (who recently scored the disquieting indie film An Elephant Sitting Still), ambient music can shock, inspire awe, or help you on your way down the cloud-lined path of deep, deep sleep.

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The latter couldn’t be truer of Sound Blanc’s follow-up release, Lucid Dream. Mined from a collection of live sessions held at the CHAO Art Center in Beijing last autumn, it presents ambient music as an outlet for meditation and relaxation, inviting listeners to fully immerse themselves in the hypnotic, reflective and therapeutic soundscapes built from the interplay of several Chinese electronic producers.

The organizers went as far as to provide headphones and padded mats for the audience, further lulling them into a state of total immersion with scented candles and projected visuals to set the mood.

 

The musicians and pairings included a murderers’ row of the scene’s finest, including Kai Luen (aka Soulspeak), Faded Ghost (the ambient-leaning side project of multi-talented artist YEHAIYAHAN), Yan Jun and the ever-evolving Chengdu-based musician Wu Zhuoling.

With ample time to allow each artist to stretch their wings (each session lasted approximately an hour), it was ambient music at its purest. As Wu recalls, “as performers, we were completely relaxed and devoted to our music […] handling every detail in the sound with the utmost care. It was a bit like participating in a religious ceremony.”

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Wu, whose work has taken on many forms — from folk and indie-electronic to left-field techno — is just one of many musicians in China who has moved closer to ambient music over the years. “I have always felt that ambient music is a very luminous kind of music, full of nuance and quietly infecting people’s emotions — closer to a form of Zen music.”

This sentiment is shared by Wuhan-based British musician Ryan Blankley, who when not playing with post-punk band Panic Worm, creates ambient music under the name Slot Canyons. “While I prefer watching and playing in actual bands, I’ve always been attached to ambient and electronic music as a listening experience,” he says. “Depending on my mood it can bring out different emotions compared to other music out there.”

 

Last year, Blankley launched Field Ring Records with fellow musician Da Fei as a way to “discover and support local musicians making electronic or ambient music.” Their most recent release, a split with Beijing-based spacey drone duo Cloud Choir, is described as “a reflection of the winter moods in their respective environments” and is tailor-made for the strange times we live in, employing field recordings, fragmented electronics and thick drones to create a wall of sound that engulfs the listener and throws them into the deep end of their consciousness.

Elsewhere, ambient music can be found within the framework and fringes of experimental labels such as Shanghai’s playrec label, headed by Wang Changcun and Xu Cheng, where artists are given the creative freedom to explore the many facets of the genre — from the archival field recordings of Zhejiang-based sound artist Zhang Ke to the more abstract electroacoustic improvisations of Sun Wei.

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On fellow Shanghai label Metasonar’s Daily Order | Volume I – Urban Montage, tracks from artists such as Somehoax, 3ASIC, and others, “redesign, reconstruct and code” urban clamor with ambient soundtracks, melding the mundane and familiar with soothing and assembled waterfalls of noise.

 

Wu Zhuoling sums up the importance of ambient music in a modern China perfectly, when she says, “In a social environment such as China that is volatile and high-strung, ambient music can make everyone and everything momentarily calm. I think it is particularly important these days for both the listeners and artists — like giving a massage to their soul.”

Will Griffith
    Will Griffith is a photographer, videographer, writer, and music promoter living in Beijing and Shanghai for over ten years. He’s the founder of LiveChinaMusic - a site dedicated to China's evolving underground music scene - and a co-founder of Subtropical Asia - a platform that promotes creatives around Asia through film. You can usually find him with a camera and a beer at a gig.