On 4th November at London’s Café Oto, event organiser Happened will be presenting Taiwanese Experimental Music: a showcase of four musicians from Taiwan, all of whom have their own unique method of upturning the conventional means of manipulating, consolidating and presenting sound and performance. Of course, the term “experimental” does nothing to curb the breadth of approaches here, encompassing the dazzling instrument creations of Yen-Tzu Chang, the communions of rhythm, place and electricity by Chiyou Ding, the deftly crafted human-nature interactions of Aloïs Yang, and Lucia H Chung’s rich, often chaotic improvisatory acquaintances between instrument and player.
In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ll be speaking to each of the artists about their work and their relationship with their origins in Taiwan. My first interview is with Lucia H Chung: co-founder of the SM-LL label with Martin J Thompson, musician working as en creux, and founder of event organiser Happened (which also takes the form of an excellent radio show). Below, we discuss how the Taiwanese Experimental Music event came to be, the boundaries of improvised performance and the origins of her creative process in a rejection of the medium of oil painting.
So how did the idea for the event arise?
Whenever I go to Chinatown, I see lots of posters for Japanese and Korean music festivals. I’ve never seen adverts for Taiwanese music other than when popstars come to London to do a concert. I’ve always wished that there was some kind of Taiwanese music festival, and considering what I’m doing as a solo artist and an event organiser, I’d want it to be experimental music.
When I was performing at New River Studios in February this year – at a Conditional night, run by Calum Gunn – Chiyou Ding came up to me and introduced himself, saying that he’s from Taiwan and that he’s currently studying at Goldsmiths. He’d been to different venues in the London experimental music scene, and he was surprised to see my name come up as a Taiwanese artist. After that, we started to bump into each other quite a lot at different gigs. I mentioned to him that it would be great to have an event if we could find a couple more artists to play. Chiyou mentioned that his friend Aloïs Yang lives in Berlin – that would be a much cheaper journey compared to coming over from Taiwan. I searched for other Taiwanese artists who may be living in Europe and I found Yen-Tzu Chang, who lives in Linz, Austria. I contacted them about my idea and they were all up for it.
You mentioned that you had this idea in your head for a while. What was the relationship between that idea and your existing thoughts on the Taiwan experimental music scene?
I feel like everything I do is pretty much about acting on impulse [laughs]. I don’t think about it that much initially. I just thought, “great – we can get a few people together and do something.” Having it all under the umbrella term “experimental music” means that we can incorporate what everyone is doing. We are very loose on the definition of experimental music – it’s more of a showcase to demonstrate a handful of Taiwanese artists all doing different things.
I have a very vague idea about what’s going on in Taiwan. When Martin [Thompson, co-founder of SM-LL] and I were in Taiwan together, we tried to find some independent record shops and other such places to visit. We didn’t have the chance to go to see shows, but we did go to Digilog. It was in a residential area with a really small sign outside the door. It was like a treasure hunt trying to find the place. It’s a really nice, quaint place with synthesisers and samplers on display, as well as some CDs and vinyl. At the back there was a workshop area, and you could tell that it was the kind of place where people would go to hang out and talk about music. I never stay for long when I go back to Taiwan and family is always the priority, so I don’t tend to get the chance to see or listen to things.
I feel my position is interesting. I feel like a bit of an outsider even though I’m from Taiwan, because I’m so far away and have been away for some time. But that’s the thing – when you’re so far away from home, you start to think about its meaning and what it is to you. Before 2015, I was here to study as an international student, so my status in England had always felt uncertain and temporary. Now it’s slightly more certain as I feel like I’m going to settle down here, so I want to bring some of my home over here and promote it a little bit more to other people.
It’s quite interesting that you all share the experience of originally coming from Taiwan and then moving to Europe. Does the distance have any effect on the way you reflect upon your music and the aspects of it that may most directly relate to your origins in Taiwan?
That’s the privilege of being creative: you have the opportunity and the capacity to reflect upon your thoughts and being. Often when you’re creating something, you’re having an internal monologue with yourself; you’re digging into things, reflecting on thoughts and occasionally uncovering stuff that you never noticed before. A lot of that stuff is formed and based in your earlier experiences, and for me, it is so heavily tied into family, culture and upbringing. As a foreigner, this type of reflective experience becomes even more amplified. When you look back, you realise that this is the source and you want to understand it more. At the same time, you want the people around you to get the chance to understand it as well.
I realise that the “experimental” tag is essentially a way to bring together musicians all engaged in very different practices, but have you thought about what the narrative of the night might look like?
I haven’t given it too much thought at the moment. In a visual sense, Aloïs and Yen-Tzu will probably be on the same side of the spectrum. In sonic terms – and it’s a completely arbitrary spectrum I’m making up here – if I’m on one end of the spectrum, Chiyou is on the other. After what Chiyou has told me, he used to do more of a 4/4 music, though I haven’t had the chance to hear what he’s been doing since he’s started studying at Goldsmiths. I feel he has a very strong view on the idea of composition, whereas my music is more about chaos and improvisation. I’m very impulsive – I do whatever comes to my mind. Yen-Tzu is probably closer to my end. She’s very “hands on” and makes her own electronics and experiments, but it’s also heavily conceptual and analytical. Aloïs is in the middle, based on what I’ve heard so far. He’s doing a lot of heavily-processed field recordings with visuals. I already have some ideas on the order of the evening but we will see what happens during the soundcheck.
Seeing as you mentioned improvisation – to what extent do you feel inspired or informed by your experiences at Oto’s Project Space a few weeks back? [This follows on from a discussion Lucia and I recently had about her improvised no-input performance at Oto’s Project Space, using a Sherman Filterbank and a guitar amplifier, where she battled against uncooperative equipment and unexpected sounds].
I appreciated very much to be asked by John (Macedo) to do a solo set, but personally I feel that was such a horrible experience in terms of how my set went that evening [laughs]. Martin kept saying to me afterwards, “don’t dwell on it” – he could see by my face that I was thinking about it the whole evening. I couldn’t help. I don’t know whether it’s from that experience or whether it’s always been there, but maybe it’s easier to start from the idea of performativity.
Back at the university I used to hate oil painting, because it took so long to do anything. You needed to get the colours and mix them carefully in your palette, and then mix them with linseed oil and other agents…it was such a laborious and time-consuming process, and it totally killed my interest in it. I was really struggling but it was a compulsory module. Then my tutor introduced me to oil painting sticks. They were bright primary colours that you could mix directly on the canvas instead of doing on the palette beforehand; in a sense it’s a bit like charcoal for sketch. From that moment onwards, I realised that I couldn’t do anything slowly. That’s why I chose to do sculpture afterwards as the process is so quick. You can work clay in your hands and do something to it straight away. You don’t have to do a sketch beforehand or wait for the layers to dry.
So you’re talking about an immediacy of process, rather than an immediacy of result?
Yeah, it’s the immediacy of the medium. When it comes to making music, I want a result straight away and I want to be able to work with it. I like the “liveness” of the improvised approach – you are constantly moulding something and taking risks, and you’re always in the process of understanding the medium while it is constantly in flux. I really enjoy that, and it really makes me tick. I’m not the type of person who will sit in the studio and work with stems. I don’t even like to record stuff.
I was going to ask about that, given that you’ve recorded and released material before.
That’s because Martin said, “you have to record stuff!” [laughs]
So it’s not your preferred means of presenting your music?
Yeah. The releases are all single takes. They are just recordings of me playing around with things; I never sit down and think, “I must produce this release” or whatever. I prefer to take out the individual pieces of equipment, think about how I want to connect them on the kitchen table and then just do it then and there. That’s it. All of the releases you’ve heard were made with this process.
Wow. That’s not how I expected your process to be at all.
I’ve always heard a liveliness within your music, but I’ve always perceived there to be an exactness of some sort. I figured that at least some aspect of the process was the result of deliberateness and nurturing. Perhaps I’m hearing a mastery of the equipment, the achievement of which, in itself, is something of a slow-burn process?
It’s interesting that you say that, as mastering my equipment is where I want to go next. More and more, I feel that I’m not sufficiently familiar with the gear that I’m taking with me for live performance. In a way, I feel like I’ve been quite lucky with it. I don’t pick random equipment. This might sound a bit hippy, but I pick a particular piece of equipment on a particular day because I want to do something with that piece of equipment. It’s just a feeling – it’s a very tacit thing. I spend a lot of time listening to what it does, which is maybe why you say that you hear a familiarity or mastery of it. I’m not that familiar with it, but I just spend a lot of time listening to the tiniest details. Sometimes I feel as though I’m the only person who can hear them or that I’m simply imagining them. [laughs] I guess that’s what people would call being “in the zone”. When I do record some stuff, that’s what happened in that moment with me and the equipment. It’s like a conversation.
That’s part of the reason I like no-input feedback: the unpredictability of it. Even the smallest touch on the knob or slider can affect how the electric current works underneath, and I just find that fascinating and exciting. At the same time it’s really dangerous as well, as you don’t know at what point you’re going to go over the line – the whole sound might go crazy, and you might ruin the equipment or your own ears. You have to take extra care as you’re trying to understand it. I always relish that moment.
I’m always fascinated by people who engage in creative processes like that, as I guess that you’ve got to be content with the possibility that you might produce sounds that displease you.
I think that’s the lesson I learned from Project Space. I was sitting there feeling like everything had gone wrong, thinking, “I can’t let people listen to this crap for a second longer.” At the same time, I didn’t know how to deal with this problem as it had never happened before. You generally have some sort of idea or plan: you go from A to B to C. Like when you memorise a map before you set out driving to a destination, so that you don’t have to rely on the map to get it right anymore. With Project Space, I decided to let go a little bit. I knew there was a route I wanted to take, but something happened…torrential rain? A landslide? I couldn’t get out of it! [laughs] I felt like I got stuck on the road.
In my mind, I thought it sounded so bad. It didn’t represent me. “It’s not my sound!” Do you know what I mean? It’s something that you deem not good enough, and it’s happening right in front of people. I found that difficult, as usually I’d know that it would be acceptable to my ears even if it went wrong. People would still recognise it as what I do. I felt quite embarrassed, but it turned out that people liked it. That’s the other thing – you might feel like everything has gone wrong, but who decides that? Afterwards, people asked if I might do more shows like I did at Project Space. It really drums home the subjectivity of music. Even as I’m talking about it, I’m still processing it.
I love the idea of fully embracing the unexpected possibilities of the improvised context. There’s an invincibility to accepting that all of the boundaries might fall down.
But that’s not possible, right? There’s always a chance that something can go wrong. Even just a dodgy cable. Some improvised artists seem to work on the mastery of their equipment, and they always go through the same routine. I don’t know whether the boundaries are important to them. They will always go down that route as they are masters of that route, so nothing can go wrong when they do that. I feel it’s stubborn to work that way, as the people around you have to do all the work and to accommodate. [laughs] But some people are more focused on those boundaries, and being prepared for when those boundaries collapse. Some people relish that constant reshaping of the boundary, and those are the people I really admire. At the same time, I also feel like they’ve mastered their instruments – there’s no stone unturned. They just know when to go where, and I want to be like that. I have to change my approach.
I don’t know whether it’ll work or not. I’ve just bought a new mixer, and I’ve decided that from now on, that’s the mixer I’m taking with me. I’m just going to have one fixed setup in the live performance situation, even if I feel like I’ve exhausted it. I want to see whether I’ll be able to use that to practise what I learn, or to discover more possibilities based on my experience at Project Space.
Are you going to be bringing that new mixer to the event at Café Oto, then?
I’d imagine Café Oto to be a nice venue to try out new equipment. There’s a social, almost empathetic structure to the stage and audience seating. That brings a certain volatility with it too – I’ve seen shows there that are incredibly rowdy and loud, and others which have been amongst the most attentive listening experiences I’ve ever had. What was your thinking about choosing Oto for a show like this, and do you think it will have any particular imprint on the event?
As you say, it’s very malleable. It can be a very attentive listening event where everyone is quiet – with just a spotlight and soft lighting – or it can be really rowdy, with no chairs and everyone dancing. It’s also the place that introduced me to experimental music. When I started to pay more attention to sound, Martin and I would come up to London to see live shows. The most memorable events I saw originally were at the Turbine Hall, the ICA and Café Oto. Because it was part of my early exposure to experimental music, I’ve always thought of it as the venue. So I feel like this is the right place for the first Taiwanese Experimental Music event. It provides the right context.