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Recombinant Festival is Bringing China’s Avant Club Music to San Francisco

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If you’re in the Bay Area this month, we highly recommend grabbing a ticket to the upcoming Recombinant Festival, happening from November 14-16 at the Gray Area Grand Theater in San Francisco.

Recombinant Festival has a history of putting up impressive programs of bleeding edge music, performance and multimedia art. Though the 2019 edition is a bit smaller than previous years (2018’s bill included more than 20 artists, including left-field dance music heavyweights Rrose and Demdike Stare), Recombinant 2019 is book-ended by big-league events, with an opening screening of a brand-new SWANS documentary and a headlining closing performance by Morton Subotnick, the quintessential early pioneer of American electronic composition.

Sandwiched in between these is a stellar showcase of artists from Japan and China, featuring Beijing techno producer Shao alongside indomitable Shanghai duo 33EMYBW and Gooooose. This part of the program was tailored by the festival’s Creative Producer for 2019, Philip L, who lived in China for nearly a decade, performed at seminal underground Shanghai club The Shelter (the predecessor to ALL), and hosted Shao and Shanghai multimedia artist Lu Yang on a video platform he co-founded, STRRR TV.

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“We are seeking music that expresses unusual attitudes and approaches,” says L, adding that this has “always been the approach” of Naut Humon, who founded the festival’s umbrella organization, Recombinant Media Lab (RML), in San Francisco in 1991. “Just being part of the scene here in San Francisco and going to shows weekly, I noticed a lot of people were interested in the Asia/China scene, and would ask me a lot of questions about it,” L adds.

The booking of Shao extended from L’s work remixing a track from the Beijing producer’s 2018 Doppler Shift album, notable for being the first LP by a Chinese artist released on the label arm of seminal Berlin club Tresor. For Recombinant 2019 Shao’s set will feature visuals from longtime collaborator Wang Meng, founder of Shanghai creative studio Atomic Visual. Shao’s cold, crystalline production work resonates with the festival’s historically techno-leaning program, and made a personal impression on RML founder Humon, who praises its “vanguard velocity, with a long and steady approach towards pulse structures.”

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L first met the two Shanghai producers at a show at ALL for Hyperdub artist Laurel Halo. 33EMYBW and Gooooose’s booking at Recombinant comes at the end of an incredibly busy year: 33EMYBW recently played an Aphex Twin-curated warehouse party in Manchester, and both of them have done a marathon lap of music festivals around world, playing high-profile slots at Unsound in Poland, Nyege Nyege in Uganda, and Soft Centre in Australia.

Humon admires the “deliberate intention and the conveyed deviancy” in 33EMYBW’s work, according to L, who has further bonded with Gooooose over a shared love of West Coast modular synthesis and the early experiments in electronic composition made by people like Recombinant headliner Subotnick.

Related:

Yin: Wild New Sounds from Shanghai’s 33EMYBW & GOOOOOSE

“Through promoting the shows, we’ve gotten a lot of interest, as a lot of people in the scene here are into the cyberpunk ethos, and Shanghai and Beijing really give off that urban metropolis type of post-cyberpunk vibe,” says L. He adds that Recombinant plans to sustain its focus on China, and launch a Chinese version of the festival in the future. “The focus on Chinese artists will not be a one-off thing,” he says — a possible 2020 event for Shanghai techno mainstay MHP is already in the offing.

Ultimately, the goal is to increase understanding among the Recombinant audience of a scene that is in some ways younger and less known than its counterparts elsewhere in the world. “It is my opinion that Europe and Japan have a more mature, stable scene, while the Chinese scene is in a constant state of flux and mutability,” says L. “We find this exciting, and wish to share this with audiences here in California.”

Find full programming and ticketing info for Recombinant 2019 here. And if you’re in LA, the East Asian artists on the program will additionally pop up for an event in LA on November 20; info on that here.

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.