The clearest musical peculiarity–and perhaps in that way the most interesting aspect—of Jun Yang’s 2017 experimental album Qì is undoubtedly its homespun synthetic approach to (Chinese) cultural reclamation. The record is rife with near-explicit references to (especially early-90s) English electronic music and its frequent appropriation of Chinese culture and music. And Yang, especially as a native Shanghainese, is certainly no stranger to that encroachment or the cultural dilution of China (and the rest of the world) attendant to the colonial spread of global capitalism. And in response he has created what appears to be something like an ambient folk album—something clearly indebted to both Chinese and English music in terms of its composition, but which also evidently evinces the peculiar circumstances of Shanghai’s present cultural moment. All of this mostly with only a guitar, some digital synths, and some sampling—it appears (although the uncanny uncertainty of each sound’s origin is also in keeping with the times).
But let me try to substantiate some of those sweeping theoretical claims about a largely instrumental album. Consider the second track, “Skandha,” whose use of sparse, droning, and deeply resonant plucks of some unknown string instrument closely resembles the early music of Coil or latter-day Throbbing Gristle in terms of both timbre and tone, especially when paired with the track’s eerily isolated vocal samples. And it is important to note that this is not a Western instrument, in the same sense that Coil experimented with vaguely Eastern instruments. The track barely moves from the stasis these elements establish at its beginning (we don’t even notice the entry of a bass synth 2:30 in). The first real development comes in the song’s fifth minute, with the entry of a noisy sample of some (American English) sports rally, which completely disrupts the balance of the song. This goes on for some time until drums enter (with a new vocal sample) at 7:00. These continue (with impetuous disregard for the music they interrupted) for about a minute before exiting as rudely as they entered, and the track then gently fades its underlying samples and drones.
The third track, “Bewilderment,” also betrays the influence of English Electronic music. The synths appear to be taken directly from U.F.Orb. (most resembling “Close Encounters”), and the song’s lengthy progression/tear-down/recapitulation structure mirrors that of many other English Ambient and Progressive House artists. But the melodies are unmistakably (perhaps even parodically) Eastern in flavor. It’s hard to imagine that such a clear synthesis of musical styles could take place in a vacuum or without also bearing some judgement on the Western appropriation of these kinds of melodies.
These are examples of the ways in which Qì apparently tries to reclaim Western appropriations of Eastern (and probably specifically Chinese) music, although the album also contains evidence of attempts at more direct and pure Folk. Closer “Today” is especially exemplary of these attempts. With a markedly stripped-down, singer-songwriter approach (with the occasional sample), Yang creates something with much less Western influence and commentary—something that I would say is to be taken at face value. This contrasts with the album’s other acoustic track “Ways to Create the Universe,” which is—in terms of chords, structure, and guitar style (but not so much vocals)—much more imitative of Western Folk Rock.
I feel I can’t close this review without also mentioning the clear influence of The KLF on the album. Although The KLF’s main Eastern borrowing (on Chill Out) was of Mongolian throat singing, I find it hard to believe that Yang’s use of samples tinged with religiosity (as on droner “Om”) does not in one way or another echo or respond to the incorporation of those kinds of sounds into music like Chill Out and its derivative ambient forms.
With that I will conclude with a word on artistic intention and reception. Obviously we have no authority in making conjecture about the original artistic purpose of these aforementioned syntheses; however, I have done my best as a music critic to attempt to analyze the relationship between the clear mixture of styles present on this album from the perspective of a Western receiver hearing what I take to be an Asiatic response to Western appropriation. That said, obviously many artists also use Western forms without directly engaging with colonialism. My argument is that Yang’s use of mixed styles is too stark to ignore. Thematic prominence clearly warrants the kind of parsing I’ve done above, although needless to say not all Western influence on non-Western music need be pointed out. Thankfully we have artists like Yang to do that when it is necessary, and they do a far better job than I could.
You can download and listen to Qì on Yang’s English-language website.
By Isak McCune