Who sang pretty little girl from Omagh
Christiaan Virant is one of the most important representatives of the underground scene in Beijing with his duo project FM3. In an interview, the American exile, who has lived in China for ten years, talks about cultural policy, censorship and local culture in rapidly changing China.
[Thomas Burkhalter]: In August 2008, the whole world of sports looked to Beijing. What does the city offer in terms of pop music?
[Christiaan Virant]: Beijing is changing rapidly. The musical offer is as varied today as in any other metropolis in Europe or the USA. A few years ago I knew every underground band here, but since then the concert calendar has grown too big. The diversity can no longer be overlooked - but you can at best divide the offer into official and unofficial currents.
[TB]: What's going on on the official side?
[CV]: That would be the Chinese pop music, above all the mando pop and the canto pop from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both have such a gigantic market that they don't have to worry about musical innovation. A pretty girl, a pretty boy and a pretty song are enough to sell two, three, sometimes even up to twenty million CDs. Western producers want to import Chinese pop into the west as the next big trend. But nobody cares about that here. A lot of my friends in the Chinese music industry don't like standing in line for visas. They are already famous in China, what should they care about the West.
[TB]: And what's going on in the subculture?
[CV]: There is an abundance of scenes and styles here: death metal, rock, indie rock, punk, electronic music, noise and electro-acoustic avant-garde. The trend right now is for singers who sing songs in their respective Chinese dialects on guitars or sometimes on Chinese instruments. Many of these singers are from provinces in western China.
[TB]: What are the most exciting developments?
[CV]: I find the breakcore movement in Beijing particularly exciting. Breakcore is the new punk rock - confused, radical and rather wacky electronic beats and sounds, not easy to appreciate. Many young people listen to and produce this music. Some labels, for example Shanshui, function completely outside the official channels. They produce weird music, design T-shirts and often tour Japan. I like the energy of this scene.
[TB]: Who is going to these concerts?
[CV]: The Chinese underground music scenes have always been dependent on foreigners: whether punk, rock, heavy metal or electronic music. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, foreign students played Western tapes to their Chinese friends, helping to develop the scenes. Even today, rock and punk bands mainly serve a foreign audience. For example, the Beijing girl punk band Hang on the Box. Sixty percent of their concerts are attended by foreign students - even if the band would deny it.
Subject of censorship
[TB]: The People's Republic of China is looking for a way between economic and cultural change on the one hand and political stability on the other. What role does censorship play in this area of tension?
[CV]: That's not an easy question. In the West, socialism is seen as a monopoly culture. One thinks that there is a controlling body that has everything under its control. Communist governments, however, have various control mechanisms: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture act as censorship authorities. And there are the authorities who monitor radio, TV and print media. If you run a music label, you need to register yourself and your products so that you can sell your CD in officially registered stores. An artist should support the ideologies of the government with his art and not question the status quo. Punk and other underground bands therefore have little chance of finding an official distributor.
[TB]: What exactly is being censored?
[CV]: New websites are censored every day by the authorities. Once the "New York Times" was no longer available. Then the “Playboy” magazine - but “Penthouse” stayed online. Public appearances by musicians are only sporadically monitored. Sometimes a band has to change their name, occasionally singers have to hand over their lyrics to local authorities before their concerts. You do this, change the lyrics on paper and then sing the original version anyway. Censorship never really works.
[TB]: So there are loopholes?
[CV]: The Ministry of Culture cannot monitor every band. The alternative bands do not even submit their music to the authorities, but use alternative channels. Getting censored has even become a marketing strategy. Every writer and filmmaker wants his work to be censored. Because he is almost certain of an award in the West. The West loves forbidden China films - whether they are good or bad. The filmmaker is stylized as a political fighter. He just works strategically and can earn his money in the West.
[TB]: Do you feel any changes in the music scene in the run-up to the Olympic Games, or in dealing with the scene?
[CV]: Security is the big issue at the moment. In the last two months in particular, the nightlife has been restricted. Many restaurants, bars and clubs close earlier.
[TB]: Are the authorities afraid of the subculture?
[CV]: No, no. This scene is too small to ever reach the masses. At the moment it is more about the fight against terrorism. For some of the bands, by the way, it's not so bad that they have to take a concert break. Because in contrast to bands in Berlin who play maybe three times a year in their hometown, here they play in the same club every week. Now they finally find time to practice properly and develop their music further.
[TB]: Does that sound like criticism?
[CV]: I am a very critical consumer of music. And unfortunately I haven't heard a band here in China that I would describe as independent, exciting and really surprising. Don't get me wrong: there are great bands in all the different genres, but that certain something is missing until now. But that doesn't mean that something new and original isn't coming: Everything is changing here at breakneck speed.
[TB]: In your duo project FM3 you also work with the sounds of Chinese instruments. Are the other underground groups in China also interested in China's cultural heritage?
[CV]: Nowhere in the world are young people really interested in traditional, local culture. Local culture is often considered conservative, out of date. And China is not necessarily what the West sees China. China is often idealized: its rich traditions, its philosophy, its language. Who else goes to the Peking Opera in China today? Tourists, some older Chinese, and a few die-hard fans. In China's musician scenes, there are very few who incorporate Peking Opera or traditional Chinese styles into their repertoire.
[TB]: What impact could the current global interest in China have on your own work with the Duo FM3?
[CV]: Nothing will change for us. We have been working worldwide for a long time and touring Europe and the USA very often. Our Buddha Machine has become a big seller. We are currently working in Hong Kong on the second version of this little box, from which such beautiful, short and long drone tones sound. We are probably the only underground musicians in China who also make some money.
The American Christiaan Virant has lived in Beijing for ten years. Together with his partner Zhang Jian, he founded the duo FM3 in 1999, which is now one of the leading and “most Chinese” electroacoustic ensembles in the country. The duo creates minimalist soundscapes using traditional Chinese instruments. Christiaan Virant's CDs are on the Bern music network Leerraum.ch, among others. available.
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