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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo - twice (Erstwhile Records, 2021) ***½

By Ron Coulter

“twice” is a June 2021 release on Erstwhile Records by Beijing, China based musicians, Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo.

The album consists of a single one-hour long track made from recordings created independently (time and location) by Jun and Wenbo. The audio material includes: field recordings, human voice (a few spoken words, breathing, mouth sounds, swallowing, and a recurring low humming), electro-mechanical devices (printer, cassette duplicator, scanner, etc.) and some traditional musical instruments (snare drum, digital piano, upright piano, clarinet, and mandolin). The traditional musical instruments are used sparsely and abstractly, most often they seem to emerge as part of the concurrent field recording or electro-mechanical humming.

This recording is definitely not jazz or free jazz related, nor is it improvised (although some of the material used in it’s creation likely was); this is electro-acoustic composition best described as musical surrealism, i.e. the intentional juxtaposition of disparate audio materials. It is a highly unpredictable listening experience and one best enjoyed with headphones, as the use of the left/right stereo field is integral, as is the use of depth, i.e. some things sounding far distant and others right in your face. This depth, created with differences in volume, separates the various audio elements into layers that approximate the traditional musical elements of melody (here, the thing that is loudest), counter melody (here, that which is of medium volume, or actively changing volumes), and accompaniment/background (that which is lowest volume).

On the surface, this recording presents itself as a random sound collage, however on multiple listenings and bits of information available at it is evident that there is a compositional process at work managing the making and combination of audio elements. For instance, “Yan Jun: time assignment for layer B” and “Zhu Wenbo:
time assignment for layer A” indicate that there were some durational controls at work in the independent recording of each composer’s material. However, these durational parameters, or any kind of patterning, are not immediately apparent in the listening experience; this would require a much deeper analysis of the work.

This is patient, challenging music. It is a slower paced, maybe even minimalist reminder of John Cage’s series of “Variations” compositions (I-VIII, 1958-1967) or some kind of Fluxus-inspired audio work. The duration of the work, the slow development, and the total abstraction of sounds has an affect of suspended time and reality for the listener, kind of like wandering through a Dalí landscape. If you are looking for a highly idiosyncratic and unpredictable listening experience “twice” is that album.


Keith said...

I think those familiar with the label or these musicians will enjoy this one. I haven't figured out its game form yet either and haven't come across someone else who has but, at the risk of sounding haughty and as if there is nothing to figure out because I can't figure it out, I'm not sure if the form is rigid enough to be found or even worth it. To copy/paste some stuff I wrote elsewhere:

"The patterning of layers can seem inconsistent, all four sounding configurations across both layers appearing around the midpoint, a clarinet and a dog distantly barking [and a continuous sine wave] continuing through sequentially clocked segments when the expectation might be a change in sounding configuration when the clock is hit, though it’s difficult to track layers among these sometimes acousmatic sounds. The sound recognized as the clock begins to blur, sounding as if manipulated by hand, or its recording manipulated in time, or blending with percussion. The couplets of presumed rules, the first two words of which I can’t make out, leapfrog with similar but different meanings and that pattern breaks down: start > start > stop > stop > pause > create; time > duration > silence > silence > pause points > silence points [an interesting juxtaposition!]. There is perhaps some time trick too, not just in the sound of the clock but rapid cuts in roomsound and the warped tones of recorded mandolin. As playtime does not often coincide with gametime in sport, so something feels incongruent here. Indeed, one of the other spoken moments I can hear is “for to make it slow, we have to move quickly.”"

Concerning the chess/sport thing, I've spoken to someone else who is pretty sure Yan Jun runs over his time; I'm aware that a lot of sport, chess especially, allows for time overages; not sure if there's anything there. Glossing over some things, my interpretation now lies somewhere around that this plays with the Cagean notion that time itself is musical material - it is the primary material here, and the soundings are only markers to help track its movements and cadence, or rather confuse the listener into recognizing its primacy.