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Yin: Li Daiguo Returns to Piano on New Album “鸟叫”

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Yin (音, “music”) is a weekly RADII feature that looks at Chinese songs spanning hip hop to folk to modern experimental, and everything in between. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

Li Daiguo has never been an easy artist to categorize. He got his start learning classical music on piano and violin, branching out to (Chinese string instrument) erhu early on and eventually earning a degree in violin performance. After college he headed to Chengdu and began expanding his repertoire. Based for the last several years in Dali, in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province, Li’s recent work has focused on three core instruments — cello, mbira, and pipa — with the latter comprising the sole instrument on his excellent 2016 album Li Shurui.

Yin: Experimental Pipa Technique from Li Daiguo

Li’s latest album 鸟叫 (niao jiao; “bird call”) was released last month by Ruby Eyes Records, and is another tricky one to pigeonhole. On iTunes the album is slotted in as “Electronic > IDM/Experimental,” and I guess you could dance intelligently to it? On Chinese streaming site Xiami, Li chose to classify 鸟叫 as “Melodic Death Metal.”

“When I think about the genre, I think about the spirit of the genre,” Li tells RADII. He’s self-categorized previous albums with equally loaded tags, including “New Age” and “Chinese folk.” He explains: “The actual music that people refer to when using those words is terrible, so I’m trying to claim it back… the spirit of New Age is awesome, totally an idealistic thing. It’s not all about cheesy synths. I want to take back the attitudes of these genres, rather than how they’ve been tainted by all sorts of fashion [trends].”

Stream/buy 鸟叫 by Li Daiguo on Xiami/iTunes/Spotify

Breaking away from his laser focus on pipa and cello, most of the sounds on 鸟叫 come from a prepared piano. The mix of subtle electronic tones with front-and-center acoustic timbres reminds me a bit of Goooose’s recent Dong1 EP, though here the focus is much more on the sound of the prepared instrument and less on after-the-fact digital manipulation. The album’s title came to Li while he was mixing it down, “hearing in every track a theme happen, and then it happens again, just slight variations. It was starting to sound like the birds outside my terrace, they have one or two sentences and they say them over and over, but it sounds good.”

Stream/buy 鸟叫 on iTunes/Spotify/Xiami, and keep an eye out for the vinyl version to become available on Li Daiguo’s Bandcamp sometime in January. And if you’re wondering about the ideal listening conditions, here’s Li’s tip for you:

“For anyone who truly cannot understand the Melodic Death Metal categorization, but wants to, all I can say is: go to a place with powerful speakers and turn them all the way up and put your brain inside fishnets and heavy makeup and razor blade scarring. It can help you get in the mood maybe.”

Cover photo: Li Daiguo by LSR (courtesy Li Daiguo)

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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