Monday 2nd January

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Home quite late tonight after spending a lovely evening with Julie. Most of today, as I was off of work was spent listening to, and writing about, a couple of releases for The Wire, so this evening I have selected something that perhaps doesn’t take quite so much careful listening, and will possibly result in quite a short review. Now, if you are anything like me, you might approach with some degree of caution an album entitled Music for listening on the moon. If that same album was also described as continuous sound material taken from an installation set up in the composer’s washroom, then, like me, you might take a while before plucking up the courage to play it…

These two things are true however about the CD playing right now as I type this. The disc is a release on the SubJam/Kwanyin label by the Chinese musician Yan Jun, whose music I have written about before. I’m not sure when the CD was actually released, and it could be a little while ago, but given that I usually see nothing at all, I am trying to give some exposure to experimental music creeping out of China. Now, I can’t think of any good reason for naming an album Music for listening on the moon (I can think of plenty of bad ones) but I guess that there is a certain ethereal, semi-ambient feel to this particular piece of music that could possibly suggest space travel in an awkwardly Eno-esque manner. It is a recording of an installation that is apparently a continuation of another installation previously set up somewhere else (a site named The Shop Beiijing, whether this was a real shop or not I don’t know). The liner notes tell us that the piece was operated using simple modulation, but a quick look at Yan Jun’s website tells me that the piece uses field recordings taken from two water pipes in his bathroom, somehow passed through electronic modulation and fed back in to the room. This recording presents us with an hour’s capture of the piece.

So its all quite gentle and calming. We hear a constant, softly oscillating tone that drifts through a very gradual wavering pattern throughout the recording. I’m not sure why, as by all accounts it probably should, but this drifting, seemingly aimless sound doesn’t annoy me, despite the way it sounds similar to the worst synthesised ambient records I ever heard in the late eighties. The sound may well be the resonance of metal pipes made audible. I am kind of reminded a little of the wire fence recordings I have heard by the likes of Lee Patterson and Patrick Farmer, the sound lives in that general area. Over and above this tone then, every so often, and with much welcome irregularity, we hear little sounds that seem to have been made as things have gurgled through the pipes, little scrapes and knocks, at one point a quite loud stream of rushing water as a tap was presumably turned on somewhere. All of these sounds are in some way processed live, so as to give them a strange hollow resonance and a slightly high pitched tonal mask placed over them. The way the sounds appear is a bit like an aural photoshop filter, a kind of sepia tone placed over what are everyday sounds we hear in our houses all the time, and indeed like I am hearing now.

Yan Jun suggests in the liners that this music can be listened to at the same time as we hear whatever other sounds are around us, and certainly that is how I approached the release. Paying close attention to it, treating it as a piece of music demanding second by second attention doesn’t feel right, but allowing these slightly removed, filtered modulations of everyday sounds to merge with the everyday sounds of the plumbing here, miles from China on a cold night when the immersion heater is continually kicking in and out works well for me. For a work of refined composition, I would certainly prefer to point you in the direction of Yan Jun’s other music, some of which I have reviewed recently (and there is some more to come), but as a capture of what was probably quite an odd, but effective installation this is an unusual and interesting release. I of course wonder (who wouldn’t?) how the installation might have sounded when (ahem) someone may have used the bathroom for its normally prescribed purposes, and how wild would the modulations here go if someone then flushed the chain? Nothing like this (probably quite thankfully) made it onto the CD, and everything we hear has a sense of uneventful calm to it, but surely we can’t be blamed for wondering. A fun little curio then, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why it has that title… SubJam/Kwanjin

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