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Interview with Yan Jun_Ear Room Guest Edition

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interview by Adel Wang Jing

Re-sounding Dialogues Across the Globe. Ear Room. 2012年1月9日


Yan Jun, working with sound and language.
Born in Lanzhou in 1973. Based in Beijing. B.A. of Chinese Literature.
As an improviser he uses feedback noise in recent concerts.  Sound influenced by PA, space and audience’s movement. Observe rather than express. A portable project “micro feedback”: to hypnotize audience by earphone. Occasionally use sunflower seeds as instrument.  Also field recording, site-specific sound, writing, publishing, curating.
Founder of Sub Jam/Kwanyin Records. Member of FEN (Fareast Network). Has toured around China and internationally.
2011: Asian Culture Council residency in New York; Rotterdam International Poetry Festival; Honorary Mention of Prix Ars Electronica; Living Room Tour project Beijing…

Artist website:





 Fig. 1. Yan Jun, Courtesy of the Yan Jun

Wang Jing’s Interview with Yan Jun on sound art scene in China and his sound art practice, July 2010 and October 2011. 

YJ: To talk about sound art, it is necessary to see that the term sound art means different things in different languages: audio Art, sound art, klangkunst… this is a new term, and it has different meanings in different languages.  Artists in different countries are doing different things with sounds.

WJ: What about China?

YJ: In China, we do not have our own term for sound art yet. I guess something like “声艺,” or… anyway, we don’t have our own term, what we are using now is a literal translation of the English term sound art.  When we use this translation we are often limited in talking about what the English speakers have already been discussing.  There is no sound art in China now.

WJ: by now, do you mean currently?

YJ: Yes, currently. But it is not quite right to say there is, or there is not. The reason why there is no such a term in China is that you could not find appropriate Chinese characters corresponding to the two English words.  So we could only translate it literally.  It is a new term in Chinese, and it gives everyone a chance to introduce foreign cultures and foreign arts.  It provides a foreign context when you use the term.  And then you suddenly have this so-called internationalism.  At the same time, some musicians and artists are doing things similar to what sound artists are doing in the Western context.  That is, some are actually making sound art works very similar to works by sound artists in the West, but they (Chinese musicians) still think they were making music or are just playing.  In a Chinese context, we are using the translated term of sound art because we do not have other choices yet.   The fact is that there will be more and more sound art works, because of internationality.   Imitation and replication is an unavoidable trend.  People always want to be who they are not.   However, historically speaking, Chinese pigeon whistles, sound design in traditional landscape architecture, and Japanese Suikinkutsu should not be included in the category of “sound art.”  What I want to say is that sound art only belongs to the existing western framework: to join the battlefield of modernity. 

WJ: What term would you use for yourself and your work?

YJ: It depends.  Sometimes I use “experimental sound,” sometimes “experimental music,” “sound art” or “sound.”  I use different terms in different contexts.  Another thing that is unique in China is when we say someone is making sound art, it is most likely that this person does not have sound art works.  Most of their works are music.  Maybe we could ask, isn’t it true that after John Cage, anything related to listening becomes music?   In my opinion, if there has to be a rubric that could be used to distinguish music from sound art, sound art requires a certain kind of thinking or conceptualization.  So in the context of China,maybe one difference between the two (music and sound art) is that music does not require too much thinking; it is more instinctual.  Sound art is closer to contemporary art in term of thinking.  This is because in China the body is still a crucial element of resistance, fighting against systematization and the increasingly rationalized neo-capitalism.  People (Chinese musicians) do not like to think.  Instead, they use their instinct and their bodies, which seems to make sonic works with any kind of conceptualization or thinking sound art.

WJ: It seems that you are suggesting sound art is conceptual art.

YJ: In fact, in Western Europe and the U.S., sound artis more technological or multi-media.  I think this is a failure.  For me, everything that makes or has sound could potentially be sound art, and it depends on how I listen to it.  Popular music could be materials of sound art, depending on how I listen to it and how I make other people listen to it.  When I use popular music as the sources of my creation, it becomes part of sound art.  So beside sounds, there is something else that makes it sound art.  I think it’s important to ask the question that in China except for performing alive on stage and releasing CDs, who are making other kinds of sound art works?

WJ: What about sound works in the nature of Fluxus or Happenings?

YJ: it depends on where the focus of investigation and thinking is.  If you are thinking about communication, challenging the relation between the public and the public space, and disturbing a certain social order, and if sound is only a means for you, then it is not sound art.

WJ: How important is it to make such distinctions?

YJ: It is not important at all.  But during the process of making distinctions, I have done research, and have thought about and understood many other things.

WJ: You mentioned your dispute with Zhang Jian [a member of FM3] during a music festival with me before.  FM3’s Buddha Machine is almost a representative work for China’s sonic scene.  Probably that’s also what most people in the West know about if they talk about sound art in China.  Could you tell me more about what you disagree with each other?

YJ: We started to argue about music from about 3 years ago.  After some one’s performance, I commented that the music was too full, and I didn’t like it.  But Zhang Jian thought the opposite and argued with me.  For him, a good piece of music should be complete and full.  It should have an introduction, transitions, development, climax and an ending.  There is always a perfect structure.  But this is not his point. The point is that good music should be pleasant for the ear and enjoyable.  In my opinion, it is a typical attitude folk musicians hold.  They have to make sure that their music is entertaining and the audiences like the music and pay for it.  Instead, calligraphy is an example to support my point.  No one considers regular script as art.  Regular script is for practicing and healing like an official poster.  The best calligraphies are always those imperfect ones, those that break the rules.  It occurs during the uncontrollable moment when great calligraphers improvise.  I disagree with Zhang Jian on what music should be.  The difference exists in how and why one makes music.

WJ: In your opinion, is Zhang Jian a sound artist then?

YJ: I call the group FM3 sound artists when they made the Buddha Machine. Christiaan Virant has made sound for Ding Yi’s exhibition.  During the time he also made something conceptual, such as Zenhead. They have tried to make more art-oriented works, but after a while they realized that they did not like this kind of work. They like music more.  I guess that they consider making art demanding too much thinking.  Zhang Jian hates the term sound art; he thinks it is too hypocritical.  For many handicraftsmen, they do not like to think too much.  When you talk about noise or sound art with a folk musician, he will not like it.  He will not like it especially when noise or sound art gains this high-art status in the society.  I think this is a kind of plain and simple proletariat sensibility.  Recently someone translated Alain Badiou’s Fifteen Thesis on How Can Contemporary Art Avoid Being Formalist Romantic? [当代艺术的十五个论题:怎样不做一个浪漫主义者].  I found many of what he says click with mine.   What I want to do with sound is not to entertainment or comfort, but to liberate.  The most important thing in contemporary art is the liberation of human beings.  Wang Fan[1] once said, many people have not lived yet.

WJ: So what is sound art for you? Or what does it do for you?

YJ: “My music should never comfort or entertain people.  When it does these things, its real value and mission will be neglected. My sounds do not propagate, and they do not make use of listeners or comfort them.  This is not a statement of my wish.  It is what I think and what I am doing with my music.  Over these years of practices and performances, I gradually realize that sounds I really enjoy in my work are often piercing, full of ambiguity, and make listeners and myself uncomfortable.  I do not feel moved or excited when I make sounds that are sweet.  Instead, I feel moved when hearing sounds that make me feel alone, and those that make me listen by myself with myself, insulated from other things.  This is my favorite sound.  My listeners are those who are alone, or those become alone through my sounds, at least at the moment.” 


WJ: Is this asking a lot from your audience both intellectually and sensually?

YJ: I don’t think so.  This is only a temporary transformation.  You enter the state of aloneness through listening.  Aloneness does not solve any problem immediately.  It is only to make you exist by yourself.  Many musicians like to say that their music is to help the listeners forget their loneliness.  It is a shame, a drug.  It is drinking poison to quench thirst.[2]  It is an illusion that we create to comfort ourselves.  But my logic is that we exist in the world alone.  We have to make efforts to admit and face this fact.  Only after its acceptance, we could be with other people who are also alone.  We should not hide or pretend to forget this fact by hanging out with friends, eating, drinking together, or getting married.  I am not against having parties and staying with friends.  But after the parties, you go back home by yourself.  Even if you go back with your partner, before falling asleep, there is a moment of absolute aloneness.  For many people, this moment is too short to be noticed.  But I must enlarge this moment, and make it longer, because only in this moment could I clearly feel and understand my existence.  This moment, for me, is individual liberation. (a long pause)…Aloneness is always good.  It is not loneliness, not lacking.  Aloneness means you are yourself, you do not lack anything.  Aloneness is wholeness.

Interview in October 2011. 

WJ: Recently, you did a three-month-long concert series called living room tour started in July in Beijing.  It was quite a refreshing way of doing concert that you go to make sounds in people’s apartments upon their invitation.  I guess by changing from public spaces like music clubs or galleries to private ones of people’s apartments, it secures a better listening environment, but at the same time, it brings a big challenge to the musicians since you don’t really know what kind of tools you are going to have or what kind of audience or space you will face.  Would you tell me how this idea started, or in other words, what is the motivation?

YJ: The motivation is to first create a listening and performance space for myself.  The kind of sound I like is difficult to make in China, because either the sound system is very bad, or audience members drink and chat when I perform.  Secondly, it is a personal desire.  I am always curious in people’s ways of living, their everyday life.  I have the desire to enter the other’s personal and private spaces.  Thirdly, the living room concert is also about faith: if you believe that a Mandala (a world) has no difference in scale, then you should create it in any place.  Living room concert is about creating a stage, a space suitable for performance.  And it is also to create a listening event, a world.  Faith is about practice.  This project (the living room concert) is a small but powerful engine.  It will ignite huge energy.  Changing the world is not symbolic; it is what is actually happening.  When we speak of creating reality or something real, in my opinion, doing living room concert is much more significant than taking part in any political movement.

WJ: Would you say something about the kind of openness you allow for this living room concert? 

YJ: The openness of living room tour is that any one can invite me, but he has to pay for it.  This is not capitalist democracy.  I ask for equal relations.  I am not an entertainer, neither am I an idol.  I have to ignite and give life to an event together with the audience.  So I have to do a lot of preparation, to activate the audience.


WJ: Now you finished the tour, would you say anything about it? Was it satisfying and what did you get from it? 

YJ: I plan to continue this project.  Next year, I will start doing it in Shanghai.  If I have opportunities to live in other cities for a while, I will do it there.  This will be my date with people.  The concert tour is not about private space as opposed to public space in general, but private spaces of audience members.  It is not the kind of event that requires a big house, friends and acquaintances in the art circles to happen.  Instead, as long as you have a place to sleep, you could create a world together with me.  Compare to using a professional performance space, I find a space that is much closer to natural everyday life.  It is common and magical.  I guess this is an ideal state of “revolutionary commonality.”  To liberate the event of sound and the event of listening from socialized division of labor, to let it occur where it should occur the most.  This is exciting for me.

Video of Living Room Tour is available at http://vimeo.com/26569440






颜:说到声音艺术,必须要强调这个词在不同的语言里所指的东西是不一样的:audio art, sound art, klangkunst… 各个国家有自己的词,在不同语言里有不同的意思。不同国家的艺术家也在作不同性质的声音作品。



颜:中国没有发明自己的词,我猜要么像“声艺”之类的。我们没有自己的词,现在用的是直接从英文的sound art翻译过来的。我们用这个翻译过来的词的结果就是我们讲的一直是外国人在讲的东西。中国现在没有声音艺术。


王: 现在,你是具体指当代吗?

颜:是的。就是说这个时候。但是其实说“有”或者“没有”也不太准确。我们先说中国为什么没有这样一个词,是因为在使用一个翻译词汇的时候,找不到对应物。所以我们只能用直译的。在中国这是一个新词,它给了大家一个介绍外国文化、外国艺术的语境,同时也就产生了所谓的国际化。中国有些人是在作类似的东西:有些人在研究声音;也有些人以为自己在研究声音;有些人在研究声音,但觉得自己在研究音乐,在玩。 总之,大家是在不得以的情况下用这个词。事实上声音艺术即将多起来,因为国际化,模仿和复制是一个不可避免的趋势。人们总是希望成为他不是的那个人。但历史的说,中国的鸽哨和园林建筑-声音设计,日本的水琴窟,都不应该放在“声音艺术”的范畴内,也就是说,声音艺术将只能是加入西方现有的框架:跃入现代性的战场。



颜:我在不同的语境里用不同的词。有时候叫声音实验,实验音乐, 声音艺术,或者声音。还有一点,在中国我们常说,这个人是作声音艺术的,但是这些人没有作品,他们的作品是音乐,是实验音乐作品,是建立在声音基础上的实验作品。也许我们应该问,有了John Cage之后,难道不是任何跟听觉有关的东西都叫音乐吗?难道不是说我们今天所做的跟听觉有关的所谓的声音艺术不就是音乐吗?我认为,声音艺术如果要和音乐区别开,它必须建立在某种思考上面。 声音艺术和音乐有一个区别就是,声音艺术需要某种思考或概念化。可能在中国,存在于两者(音乐和声音艺术)之间的区别就是音乐不需要那么多思考,它可能更本能。而从思考的角度说,声音艺术更接近当代艺术。 因为在中国,身体仍然是一个重要的抵抗性的因素,它是对体制,包括越来越理性化的新资本主义体制的抵抗。人们不愿意去思考,而是使用他们的直觉和身体。这导致任何带有思考和概念倾向的作品,都变成了声音艺术。




颜:实际上,西欧和美国的声音作品一点也不观念,他们是相当技术的东西,他们甚至就是多媒体艺术的一部分。我觉得这是相当失败的地方。在我看来,一切出声的都可能是声音艺术,取决于我的聆听方式。流行音乐也可以是,取决于我怎么听它,我怎么使人听它。当我把流行音乐当成我的创作素材,流行音乐就成了声音艺术的一部分。所以说声音艺术是由除了声音本体外还存在的另外一些东西和声音共同构成的。 我觉得一个十分重要的值得问的问题是,在中国,除了在舞台上表演和出版CD,除了这两种媒介之外,谁还在创作别的作品。









颜:我们之间的争论大概开始于三年前。 在看完一个人的音乐表演后,我说他的音乐太圆满了,不好听。但是张荐的看法正好和我相反,所以我们就争论起来。对张荐来说,一个好的音乐就是饱满的,完美的。它要有来有去,起承转合,有完美的结构。但这还不是他当时跟我的争论点。他的看法是,好的音乐应该让别人听着舒服。在我看来,这是一种典型的传统民间音乐人的态度。如果你是民间艺人,你必须让你的音乐精彩,让人舒服,让你的观众付钱。但是,我的观点不同。可以用书法艺术举例,没有人会拿楷书当艺术欣赏,写楷书的人是为了练习,跟治病练气功一样。它是很低艺术的。所谓艺术成就最高的书法都是破的,不完美的,是不可控制的,是书法家即兴发挥出来的东西。在“音乐究竟是什么”这个问题上面,我跟他看法不同。这个不同也存在于我们为什么作音乐,怎么作音乐。



颜:他们作唱佛机的时候,我们这么叫他们。老赵给丁已的展览Zenhead配乐, 试图作过一些艺术的东西,但是后来他们发现不喜欢这些了,他们更喜欢作音乐,我猜他们觉得艺术想的太多。张荐很讨厌声音艺术,觉得很矫情。对很多手艺人来讲,他们很讨厌过渡的脑力活动,你对一个民间歌手说噪音、声音艺术,他不会喜欢,尤其当社会上的人把这个吹捧的很高的时候,他们更不喜欢。我觉得这是很朴素的阶级感情。最近有人翻译了Alain Badiou的一篇关于当代艺术的文章, “当代艺术的十五个论题:怎样不做一个浪漫主义者”。对我来说,他很多地方和我想的一样 。我通过声音要做的不是娱乐,不是安慰,而是解放。当代艺术最重要的是人的解放。王凡说过:“很多人没有活过”。



颜:我的音乐绝对不可以去安慰、去娱乐别人,当它去作这些事情的时候,妨碍了它真正的价值和使命。这不是我的愿望,而是我在我的音乐中体会到的:我想要的原来是这样的东西。我做出来的音乐使我最陶醉的那些瞬间全都是模糊的,同时带着让人不安、不舒服的东西,刺痛别人,也刺痛我自己。当我作出特别美的东西的时候,我不觉得很感动,让我感动的是使我变得更孤独的东西,使我沉浸在聆听中,与别的东西隔绝,只和我自己在一起的时候,这是我最喜欢的声音,所以我的观众是孤独者, 或者被我的声音变成孤独者,至少在聆听的那一刻是。



颜:没有什么要求,这是一个临时的转化而已,被我的作品转化为孤独的人。你通过聆听进入孤独的状态。孤独不能立刻解决任何问题,它只是让你陷入一个自身的存在,如此而已。很多音乐家爱说我们听音乐、作音乐就是为了让我们忘掉我们的孤独,这是可耻的,是饮鸩止渴,是毒品,是虚幻的,就是所谓的做梦。用做梦来安慰自己。我的逻辑是我们每个人的存在都是孤独的,你必须想方设法承认和面对这个事实。 只有面对了这个事实,你才能跟别人,跟其他同样孤独的人在一起。而不是把孤独掩盖起来,和他们喝酒划拳,结婚,吃饭,彼此欺骗,彼此安慰,忘掉孤独这个事实。 我当然不反对聚会和朋友在一起,但是聚会结束之后,你是一个人,就算是两个人回到家里,睡觉前的这个时刻你是孤独的。这个时刻对很多人是短暂的,可以不记,但是我必须要放大、延长这个时刻,然后才能清楚地感受和理解自己的存在,这个对我来说就是关于人的解放…… 孤独总是好的。孤独不是孤泠泠的,孤单的。孤独就是你是你自己,而不是我缺少什么。孤独就是什么都不缺,就是圆满。





王:The Wire杂志在介绍这个演出时,提到了聆听的开放性,在你看来,客厅巡演给予的是怎样一种开放性?

颜: 客厅巡演的开放性在于任何人都可以邀请我,但他一定要付出代价。这不是资本主义民主。我要求对等的关系,我不是卖艺的,也不是偶像,我得和观众一起激活一个事件。所以我要做很多准备工作,来让观众变得积极起来。



颜:我打算一直做下去,明年先在上海做。以后有机会在其他城市住一段时间,就可以在那里做。这将是我和人们的一个约定。客厅巡演的重点不是“私人空间”,而是观众自己的私人空间,它绝对不是那种有大house 和很多文艺圈朋友的人才可以搞的活动。而是,只要你有地方睡觉,你就可以和我一起,创造一个世界。相对于去一个专门的演出空间,我找到了一种更接近自然生活状态的方式,它既普通,又神奇,我想这是一种理想状态的“激进的平凡”。把声音事件/聆听事件从社会化分工的框架里解放出来,让它在最应该发生的地方发生,这让我很激动。


[1]Wang Fan is a Chinese experimental musician and sound artist.  He is identified as the first experimental musician in Mainland China with his lo-fi music works Dharma’s Crossing released in 1996. 

[2] A Chinese saying: 饮鸩止渴



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