What you need to know
‘It’s an alienating vision that’s also quite beautiful in its abstract and haunting way.’
It is approaching midnight when Shao Yanpeng, arguably China’s most important electronic music artist, kicks off his set in a dome-shaped auditorium at Hong Kong’s Science Park, a space designed to foster tech innovation that feels like something of an unusual spot for a 14-hour dance party.
The Beijing-based artist has been flown in to perform at the one-day electronica festival – Barcelona import, Sonar+D. A slender guy with a rather somber expression and a fuss-free, self-effacing approach to performing, Shao’s music deals with themes pertaining to the disruptions and loss in his society, while investigating the cross sections of space and sound.
This is Hong Kong’s first edition of Sonar. The Barcelona festival has been providing a platform for electronic music and arts since 1994. Its arrival here speaks to the rising demand for innovative and non-mainstream music in both Hong Kong and China, and the growth in local production talent.
Shao’s is a gloomy and visceral 40-minute glitch, techno and noise rock inspired set complete with black-and-white visuals showing disorienting and discombobulated crowd scenes transform into and from indiscernible shapes. It’s an alienating vision that’s also quite beautiful in its abstract and haunting way.
Shao – formerly of the moniker Dead J – is in demand in Europe as in China, being the first Chinese electronic artist to be signed by Tresor, Berlin’s legendary techno label.
He’s also an accomplished sound artist, having, among commissions, been drafted to create a new soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s silent Sci-fi classic, “Metropolis,” by the Goethe Institute.
But, despite that international demand, he’s committed to predominately working out of Beijing, amid a blossoming underground scene.
“Beijing is my inspiration – it’s so complicated, sometimes it’s so complicated I hate it. There are too many people in the city, and the city has changed rapidly,” he says.
“I like the old side of Beijing, the silhouette of the Forbidden City, or Jing Shan Park. I enjoy the traditional beauty and peaceful feeling – but it’s quite a small part of Beijing nowadays.”
Born in 1981 and self-taught, Shao turned to electronic music production in 2000 when he started to experience rock music, as stale and stagnant. His mother was a traditional Chinese singer.
“My parents don’t really listen to my music. But once, I showed my mother a piece of my ambient music and she said it was good and beautiful,” he says.
Shao’s original influences were bands Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins that he got interested in as a high school kid in Hubei in the 90s. Thinking back to those days brings back “warm memories” of an era that followed China’s opening up.
International music flooded China, which both inspired and overwhelmed China’s musicians – many of whom had relied on illegal CD shops to access illicit albums from the likes of Lionel Ritchie, Blur and Tupac Shakur.
China’s creatives are still playing catch up now, striving to sift through traces of their own heritage and aesthetics lost in the upheavals of 20th Century China.
In 2003, Shao found himself housebound as SARS swept through China. That was when, holed up indoors, he started to produce works alone with his Roland synthesizer, remixing Mongolian voice artists in an experimental project.
He was – and continues to be – inspired by pioneering western artists like Brian Eno, AIR and Autechre as well as China-based multi-genre artist Dou Wei, of hard rock band Black Panther fame.
Part of what attracted Shao to electronic music production is the innovative individualism it fosters. Bedroom producers can replicate the sonic richness of orchestras without employing a single musician – and experiment with entirely new sounds.
That is exciting as it is kind of scary – a development that speaks to the ambivalence many of us feel about the increasing sophistication of technology as it becomes an ever-inescapable facet of all aspects of human life.
“The world is going to crazy through internet 2.0, I hope it can be better in a good way, with a better technology. Seriously,” says Shao.
Editor: Edward White