Shanghai Express: The eARTS Festival 2008 Report
Last week found me in Shanghai participating in the eARTS Festival 2008, a city-wide endeavor with the theme of “Urbanized Landscape.” The festival’s stated goals include the bringing together of art and technology, fusing tradition and modernity, providing a major international platform for artists from around the world, and reaching traditional and new audiences. While much of the art presented around the city fell into the broad categories of media art, installations, interactive sculptures, and so forth, there was a significant performance component and I was glad to have been invited to join. My participation included two performances as part of three evenings of electronic and computer music and visuals curated by Dajuin Yao.
Yao is a composer, artist, radio and music producer who studied art history at the University of California, Berkeley. He co-founded the Chinese Computer Music Association, in addition to his involvement in other important endeavors. Now a professor at China National Academy of Fine Arts, he’s a pioneer in Chinese concrete poetry and web art, and has worked tirelessly cross-pollinating Chinese sound artists with their international colleagues. The three evenings of performances Yao put together brought composers and musicians from the US, Europe, and Japan together with artists from disparate parts of China.
The setting for the three concerts was on the banks of the Zhangjiabang River in the ultra-modern district of Pudong, which looks like something straight out of Fritz Lang. With the audience on bleachers on one bank and the artists on stage across the water separated by 30 meters or so, huge video projections supplemented the performances and improved the sightlines. Hearing was no problem, as an excellent sound system was brought in for the events. Although I was sometimes backstage awaiting my own cues, I was often able to join the crowds on the audience side and take in much of the rest of the activities.
One of the highlights included Masayuki Akamatsu’s Snowflakes, an interactive piece for which audience members were encouraged to bring their own iPhones and perform together with a group onstage, all using a special iPhone app that Akamatsu designed and made available before the start of the festival. The work actually saw two performances, the first having been summarily and prematurely terminated by orders from a top Party official when a cadre of VIPs and party members had to move on to their next ceremonial appearance elsewhere in the festival.
Wang Chanchun, a composer who uses algorithmic techniques in his solo piano work, performed on a disklavier (the MIDI controllable piano from Yamaha), via laptop. Although the piano was onstage, technical gremlins prevented it from being utilized and so the composer resorted to using his computer’s excellent piano samples to perform the piece instead. It was a bit of a Milli Vanilli moment, but many of us didn’t notice the disconnect from our position across the river and, in any case, the quality of the music was satisfying enough. Wang has found a way to make automated processes melodically and harmonically compelling, and has a good sense of structure and formal coherence.
The group BoPoMoFo did a kind of live online chat creating a parallel universe of keyboard neumonics. The term Bopomofo is a phonetic system for transcribing Chinese, especially Mandarin, for people learning to read, write, or speak it. The five members are set up at a long table onstage and all wear webcams on their heads which feeds a video screen behind them, giving their POV like racecar drivers on ESPN. As they type, text-to-speech software converts their keystrokes to sound, and these layer and build, then start doing insane pitch excursions. Conceptually interesting and fun, but not particularly exalted musically.
From the San Francisco Bay Area, Laetitia Sonami is the antithesis of the laptoppers who preceded her. For many years her instrument has been the cyborgic “Lady’s Glove,” a network of sensors and switches which she wears on her arm like, well, a lady’s glove. Her work is based fundamentally on gesture and one often can detect the correlation of physical gestures to musical ones, although they are never predictable. Laetitia’s work is characterized by a great subtlety of sound and use of musical space. It was a beautiful performance undermined somewhat by the audience’s noisiness in the midst of a public outdoor setting.
Ulf Langheinrich’s composition combining wide screen video imagery and computer sound was one of the more controversial pieces presented in the three evenings. Langheinrich is a co-founder of the media art unit called Granular Synthesis which has created a number of large-scale immersive installations that have been staples at festivals like Ars Electronica in Linz. Langheinrich has a number of solo projects aimed at achieving a direct sensory impact which “focus on creating specific modulations of the projected material in time and in the projection-space, and effecting interference movements between the perceptive and processing potential of the eye-brain-apparatus.” Slowly developing and modulating almost imperceptibly over time, the abstracted sounds and images, mostly color fields and subtle shadings, produce a slowly emerging feeling of dimensionality. Langheinrich’s work needed concentration and attention to succeed, and in that sense was a bit undermined by the outdoor venue, with its ambient lighting conditions, video screen with prominent gridlines, and extraneous noises throughout. Nonetheless, this was one of my favorite pieces on the program and I hope I might have a chance to experience it again under optimal circumstances.
My own performance on evening two was a solo, and I had 30 minutes to give the high range sound system a full workout. That was fun! On the third evening, I was joined by master musician Wu Wei for a duo improvisation. Wu had arrived from Europe just two hours before the sound check, and it is a tribute to his professionalism and musicianship that he could rehearse and perform with full energy. Although we have played together in larger ensembles (I reported on our last encounter in San Francisco as part of Melody Of China), this was our first opportunity as a duo. Based out of Berlin, Wu Wei is an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, equally comfortable with traditional Chinese music as with experimental music and jazz. We planned out some ideas in advance of our physical meeting using the time honored method of Skype, confirmed a general formal shape to our piece, and decided to leave the details to the spontaneity of improvisation. I sampled Wu’s instruments (erhu, sheng, bangdi, voice) in real time, cutting, fracturing, looping and combining them with other materials. Without having yet heard a recording of the performance, I lack the objectivity to say whether it succeeded fully or not, but it felt good at the time and the audience seemed to appreciate it, as we got a loud and positive response clearly audible across the river. Once again I have been honored and blessed to have such a fine collaborator.
With my own work complete, I was able to relax and enjoy other festival events, and so I went to see a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play, which took place the next evening in a park in another part of Shanghai, and featured more than ten musicians interpreting, and reinterpreting, a visual score of found and appropriated film objects. My report on that will come next week, so stay tuned!