Interview with Li Daiguo

photo by Dickson Dee

Experimental and world music fans with their ears cocked towards China are likely familiar with Li Daiguo, the acclaimed boundary-pushing musical polymath known as much for his complex compositions performed on a wide spectrum of traditional instruments as his often-bewildering live performances that have seen the American-born Chinese cavort with gypsies, tramps and other self-described lunatics alongside some of the country’s most respected avant-garde and experimental musicians, including boldface names like Wu Na, Xiao He and Yan Jun.

His latest effort, the seven-inch vinyl release Music for Advertisements, sees Li presenting a series of sonic advertisements for seven locations that the 32-year-old appreciated during his six years in Chengdu, the southwestern regional hotspot, creative hub and capital of the country’s infamous Sichuan Province.

Mining both the traditional Chinese and global music canon for instrumentation that incorporates everything from his signature pipa and erhu to the beatbox, clarinet, cello and a flotilla of flutes, Li skillfully brings the 2300-year-old city to life with his dynamic series of self-produced sonic snapshots that run the gamut from a tuberculosis hospital to lush bird and plant markets to the secretive fleshpeddlers who congregate around the city’s Old South Gate Bridge angling for lucrative tricks.

We sat down with Li between tours and thrust and parried our way through several sprawling discussions. Read on to listen to the deconstructionist zero in on a slew of topics, including the trappings of genre identification, spirituality and meditation, the concepts behind the new record and what to expect at the Beijing and Hong Kong release parties.

Hey. What are you doing?

I’m in Dali, where I live, maintaining my life routine which involves practicing many things. I’m also working on a composition for the Guangzhou Modern Dance Company for a production in the spring and preparing to take part in Sonic Protest in France in April with Kink Gong.

What kind of things are you practicing? And what are you working on for the dance company?

Well, the instruments are mostly pipa, erhu, viola and cello and the shona mbira. I practice a lot of different styles of music, including shona music, classical Indian, Chinese and Western classical music plus different types of Chinese opera and the like. The non-musical stuff is just, generally speaking, all meditation-related. For the dance company, it’s just kind of a commissioned piece based on a collection of my previous compositions. The intro will sample the first track from Music for Advertisements.

We’re going to release Music for Advertisements on Sat, Apr 20 in Hong Kong as part of Record Store Day. Tell us about it.

It’s about emotions that I observed and had that were associated in my mind with things going on in Chengdu when I lived there—not necessarily big things or events, but just little things that you might notice and have a feeling about.

Like what?

It’s mostly how huge waves of people, cars and weather will flow through a certain place throughout the day. And how long you sit there and watch, listen and what the day is like will obviously affect the mood—like hoards of rickshaws and cars and bicycles like massive schools of fish through the smog or the dark dampness of a TB hospital where people are full of a variety of emotions while waiting in line outside under the perpetually-grey skies of Chengdu to test their blood or do X-rays and not cough blood everywhere.

How did you conceptualize it?

I had a lot of ideas about structures and time lengths and thought that interesting things can happen if you focus a lot of attention on something for a short amount of time (as opposed to the more traditional record length of an hour-or-so). The result can be taken just as seriously as if it were an hour long. I also often think about advertisements and the language of ads—how sound plays a role and how it’s generally used to facilitate an image or video when people are trying to bonk the audience on the head into having a certain emotion.

Where there any advertisements in particular that stuck out?

That’s pretty hard since I have stopped watching TV. But any time I see an ad in a TV elevator or on a plane or something, I’m informed that things have not changed. Just turn on the TV and think about what I’m saying and I think that it’ll be obvious.

I composed and recorded the album over a few weeks in my southern Chengdu apartment using a digital hard disk recorder and some condenser mics and acoustic instruments. There’s a pipa, erxuan, xiao, guzheng, viola, cello, clarinet, suona and a lot of other “toys” and stuff in there. Some of the instruments were specially prepared for some sections, too.

How did you determine which locales to choose?

I didn’t really predetermine and make a soundtrack: I had parts of the city that I liked and the music became more and more illustrative of the feelings that I associated with those places after I’d composed most of it.

You live in Dali now. Why did you leave Chengdu?

After six years, I couldn’t handle being somewhere with virtually no solar presence or blue sky. But I appreciated my time there and when stuff comes up, I do go, which ends up being a few times a year at least.

That’s a good enough reason. What were your goals with this record?

No real goals outside of making it and enjoying being able to listen to it when it was finished. I play all of the instruments myself and it’s not often that I get to hear a composition of my own that uses lots of instruments because I don’t have the resources to have an ensemble full of people who use the instruments that I use and in a way that I want to hear them. Making recordings is often the closest that I can get to that in recent years.

What’s prohibiting you from assembling an ensemble?

Lots of things: distance, time… meeting the right people. I suppose that loads of money could solve that: if someone invested, I could just hire 10 people to come live here and have my own chamber ensemble of different musicians and compose and perform with that group. But that’s quite unlikely. I do have some small ongoing projects with 2-3 people and stuff, but that’s kind of like bands. I would put something together with people who come from a mostly Chinese classical background and write out scores for the bigger ensemble.

Take us through some of the songs starting from the opener, “Chengdu Aesthetic and Plastic Hospital”—it contains an eclectic assemblage of sounds.

The whole record, like most of my ensemble compositions, focuses on instruments in which I have some traditional training. As such, my compositions revolve around how and what I’m playing at that time. I’d just gotten a new pipa and was enjoying the depth of the tone when making any sound on it, even abstract ones, and that’s kind of the leading voice for the whole opening track before the melodic removal of bandages from the recently surgically-improved face at the end.

So despite being instrumental works, the songs contain narrative themes?

No. I’d say that while there aren’t concrete narrative themes in terms of a story, I think that every time you listen to them, you might get different vivid visual images or visualizations might come along with the different emotions—and that would also depend on what’s up with the listener that day. So I absolutely compose or like to listen with the idea that there are structures that resemble a narrative or story, but they are not solidified in language or concepts. Does that make sense?

It does. Is that a beatbox on “Green Ram Daoist Temple?”

There is beatboxing on a quite a few tracks, but it’s subtle and not intended to be anything more than an instrument among others in an ensemble. I am no Rahzel and despite admiring the skills of great beatboxers across the world, I find it rare to hear them using it as an instrument; it’s more like a quick solo to show how thick your technique is and how crazily you can imitate electronic sounds. The compositions themselves, though, are not so interesting. For me, using the technique is a rhythmic instrument and that’s all. Sorry, that was probably off-topic, but I thought of it because you mentioned beatboxing like it was prominent…

Not prominent. But it is noticeable and worth highlighting…

Anyway, on all of the tracks, there are sudden drastic changes of emotion and instrumentation, much like those experienced in ridiculous TV ads. Say, for example, a laundry detergent ad—there’s a certain emotion or set of them when the kid is going out to play ball and suddenly another one when he gets his shirt all muddy, and then a sudden other one when the product that will solve his problem appears on screen. Obviously it gets more complicated than that, but the more you pay attention to the music, the more ridiculous it becomes and you laugh at how people intend to trick audiences into having certain feelings. But this phenomenon is something that I am also really critical of in films and television shows, so it’s not all about ads or selling products… lots of other kinds of “musical persuasion” are really ridiculous to me.

What do you mean by “musical persuasion”?

Since I have an emotion in mind that I want my audience to feel when they see my film, I’m gonna use a certain kind of sound or music that seems to help manifest that feeling in the audience. It could be abstract sound effects from a waterphone or something in a horror movie when it is supposed to be really tense and suspenseful because the protagonist is in the basement in the dark alone—or even some generic club beats for when some high school girls are going shopping for prom. Or whatever.

Lots of music or sounds end up having either a direct physical effect on listeners that causes some emotions. Or in addition, there are so many cultural associations with music and sound that stimulates people into having those emotions—if they’re not paying attention to what’s being done to them [laughs]. So it’s ridiculous because it seems so troglodytic, so Pavlovian.

“Chengdu Tuberculosis Hospital” is surprisingly jaunty considering its dark source material—it reminds me of a hoedown.

Yes, the Chengdu Tuberculosis Hospital can be a dark place where it helps to remain jovial.

Do you have any firsthand experience with the Chengdu Tuberculosis Hospital?

Yes, I had TB and it was a serious thing for me. I was at that hospital a lot.

On a lighter note, have you ever incorporated visuals into your work? Some of the songs on the record, like “The ‘Beautiful Thai Girls’ Under the Old South Gate Bridge,” have a very cinematic quality to them.

Yeah, right, so this is the question that we’re talking about: What is this pervasive cinematic quality that most people don’t seem to laugh at?

What do you mean?

I mean you used the word “cinematic” to describe the sounds in that song as though “cinematic” were a genre or something. Which I think most people would agree with, or, if they had heard this piece, they would know exactly what you mean (which I think I do as well).

But what is this cinematic style, exactly? Why are certain sounds thought to be really suitable for helping image or appearing in films to give atmosphere or whatever? While the role of sound and music in films is auxiliary, it doesn’t have to be (you can use music to narrate and reveal content in film—even without words). And the tradition in lots of films is to follow a certain way of using music as a very limited language. Does that make sense?

It does.

Here’s a lovely coincidence: On the DVD that we will include for Hong Kongers, the first track is the video for “The ‘Beautiful Thai Girls’ Under the Old South Gate Bridge.” Those are transgender working girls who are Chinese but call themselves Thai to refer to their “transitude” because a commonly held notion among some people in cities in China is that lots of Thai people undergo operations and come out looking really good.

Anyways, I approve of how the sound interacts with the images: there are a lot of “cinematic orchestral”-type sounding strings in that track, and for lots of people, I can imagine the kind of visual content they would think fits that vibe: a little dark, not quite ominous, melodic and brooding a little bit or something. So what I see as the kind of typically-imagined visual that would go along with that would be really, really boring, superfluous or redundant.

The video that was made that is on my DVD is a cute stop motion that is not serious or dark at all of a vegetarian curry being made with the naan making itself and the vegetables in all sorts of lovely somewhat “Indian” designs dancing around and hopping into serving bowls and pots. This is also ridiculous, although in a way I cannot but approve of and believe to be healthy for peoples’ minds [smiles].

“Picnic” filmed by Sasadasalwo

What made you arrive at the decision to perform this type of music? Was there a specific influence or catalyst?

I don’t know if that’s the right question for the kind of answer that I know how to give—I just like it. It’s the same as most composers, I imagine: they just like stuff, all sorts of stuff, music or not, and either steal from it or study it deeply and analyze it or learn the skills and put it into their consciousness and body and then make stuff they like and there it is. And learn more stuff… and make more stuff. And change. Unless, of course, they’re being paid to make a specific thing—then I guess it’s a somewhat different path.

I guess the question behind that would be, “Why do I like what I like… the things that influence me in my life.” If I say, “I like avocados,” you ask why: the texture, the flavor… again, “Why do I like that texture, that flavor”—that can go on for a really long time, that dialogue. Why do I like the pipa‘s sounds? How deep can we really go with words here? Or I guess how deep can I really go…

We can go as deep as you’d like. Let me frame it this way: I was immediately energized as a kid when I first heard bands like T. Rex, Black Sabbath and Guns N’ Roses—they hit me like a fireball. I found them badass and wanted to emulate them—their sexuality, violence and sense of danger. So I picked up a guitar…

I see. But why did the sexuality and violence and danger entice you so much? If you’d heard, say, Debussy’s cello sonata at that time instead, would you have been entranced by its melancholy—would you have swooned at the soaring of the cello’s melody over the misty piano accompaniment? I guess if the question is present tense, everything around me influences me—but the influences that I focus on maybe more than others are my natural environment: the air, the water, the food and the weather.

I understand.

Yeah. And when I travel for shows, I’m influenced when I suddenly pop into a major city. I am influenced, of course, by the people around me. But then all of these influences are somewhat under my control because I choose to be around them—or choose not to be.

But at some point, it ceases to be a point of curiosity, I think. Of course people all have stories of how they got introduced to different things—but I guess that’s laying out a sequence of events—not an explanation of real deep reasons.

What sparked this seemingly-insatiable desire? Let’s talk about your instrumentation: you’re a musical polyglot.

While I’m not an instrument or an instrument skill collector, there are many instruments that I use for specific purposes that I would say I have an insufficient control over or familiarity with to say I really play them.

For example, the clarinet is an instrument that I can do a lot of noise with and some simple melodies and some rhythms and have a decent range of things to do if I am in an ensemble (of certain kinds of music) or recording compositions. But I don’t really know the clarinet: it’s not anywhere close to second nature. I don’t believe I truly have my own voice with that instrument, so there are like 10 instruments I use that are like that: they don’t count.

The ones that do count for me are the ones when I’m on that instrument, I know exactly where I am. I am very sensitive to it and the distance between what I can imagine on the instrument or want to do isn’t so mind-bogglingly far from what my hands will do just by thinking about it. Of course, that’s not saying that I’m a grand virtuoso on any of them, but we have good solid relationships and I have played them and undergone different kinds of systematic training on them for over 25 years at the longest and maybe 12-13 years at the shortest. So those are the violin, cello, pipa and erhu and I don’t plan to tackle more.

Photo by Michel Cuerva

Right now, I’m still studying the mbira dzavazimu, which is a very interesting instrument—but I’ve only been into that for about five years and am just starting to feel how deep its power can be (though I may say the same thing after 10 more years). If I were to get serious and systematically train with, say, two more instruments, I’d probably wait another 15 years and I’d choose a woodwind… maybe one of the double reeds whose sounds penetrate me mercilessly such as suona, and maybe maybe maybe a percussive instrument used in some kind of classical Indian music. Though at this point, my motivation would be less for enjoying a sound that I love and more for having a deeper more holistic understanding of the rhythmic structures, variations and language in classical Indian music.

I still practice a lot—and different things. I study Zimbabwean mbira shone music; I study North Indian classical music, and of course, I continue to train in Chinese and western classical techniques and aesthetics selectively.

I also steal from other kinds of music, though I wouldn’t say that I’m studying them or properly learning them beyond a superficial understanding of their techniques and general aesthetics and structures—I’m not doing much more than borrowing techniques. Examples include Irish/Scottish fiddling, gypsy flamenco and American bluegrass. It’s the same as any other composer: of course your influences or the things that you steal or get inspiration from don’t have to be music or sound… the things that resonate with you guide you. Even if you have another objective, as long as you’re using your consciousness and preferences and own sensitivities as a compass, then I suppose that’s how it goes.

Do you see your music as a continuation of the traditional Chinese canon?

I think that’s a social question rather than a musical one and I am no sociologist. Any canon, even Western classical, is full of a bunch of social and political stuff that has nothing or little to do with the sounds or music being discussed. I personally don’t think about it that way, so I guess the answer would be no.

What constitutes being a continuation of a canon? Wu Man, who is a pipa virtuoso, has in the last few decades debuted probably over a hundred new compositions for pipa written by Western composers. The pipa is an instrument that was not invented by the Han Chinese, but rather borrowed and evolved up to now. So are Phillip Glass or Terry Riley’s pipa compositions a continuation of the traditional Chinese canon?

And conversely, is Tan Dun’s music a continuation of the traditional Chinese canon or the Western neo-classical canon? Or both? Or neither? Seems to me that this question isn’t easily answered objectively or universally and is kind of up to educational institutions and the influential people there, as well as publishing and publicizing institutions and entities. So again, it seems to be something decided by something other than the music… which isn’t bad, it just seems to have nothing or little to do with my focus.

What’s wrong with subjectivity? And even if the pipa wasn’t a Chinese invention, I’m not sure if that’s relevant when it comes to discussing its role as an instrument used in traditional Chinese music. As a layman, I’d define the “traditional Chinese canon” simply as music written for and performed on traditional Chinese instruments. So in that sense, I would label Phillip Glass and Terry Riley’s pipa compositions a continuation of the traditional Chinese canon. That being said, do you see your music as part of the traditional Chinese canon? If not, how would you categorize it?

Sure, I agree with there being no problem with subjectivity. But what I’m interested in musically, or what I compose or perform, could be seen as part of many different traditions. Does that make sense? So I guess from your perspective, my work on pipa or involving erhu would be part of the traditional canon. But since I’m using bluegrass fiddle in the same composition, I guess it’s also part of the American bluegrass canon?

That makes sense, sure.

Since I’m mixing things up and am interested in drawing on a variety of traditions, it seems there is the possibility of fitting into a lot of canons (depending on a person’s perspective), but it never occurred to me that that was something important to assert and it might not even be helpful as a description, depending on whom you are talking to. However, as a marketing tool, it is useful [laughs].

PS: The pipa evolved from a non-Han instrument, the only instrument, I believe, that appears to be truly Chinese and not an evolved (hundreds or thousands of years) form of instrument from another culture, the guqin.

photo by Dickson Dee

Interesting. Let’s talk a little more about history. Do you feel as if musicians, say, pre-1949 would have gotten to where you are—experimental, avant-garde music created with traditional instrumentation—eventually if not for the profound societal shift?

There are (Chinese) musicians who do so-called “experimental avant-garde music with traditional instrumentation.” But I guess your question is, “Would there be more of it?”

Sure. And do you think that these folks would have gotten there sooner if not for the disruption? There’s obviously no way to answer this, but it’s interesting to posit what could have been and what musicians in Mao-era China could have accomplished if the country’s artistic community hadn’t been forced into a deep freeze…

I think that they would have gotten somewhere that would not be “there” in a Western sense—it’d be something beyond the scope of Western experimentation or avant-garde and it would be a continuation of a very old independent tradition, meaning not Western or global, that would have its own set of standards… so maybe a lot of Chinese artists wouldn’t be emulating the West, and maybe Westerners wouldn’t be looking at Eastern modern art through a Western postmodern lens that is based only a few hundred or a thousand years of aesthetic philosophy.

I am no sociologist, but I do know that trading one element for another in such a vast hypothetical is not a very objective or easy way to kind of meaningfully calculate or surmise whether things would be different and how they would be different.

If George W. Bush was never the US president, for example, what would have the downtown scene in New York have been like in the 2000s? It’s just so broad and impossible to take into consideration the infinite variables and all the other things that are affected by all things and in turn affect back.

Also, it is important in a question like this to define terms that might be slippery—I still am not really sure what a lot of different people think when they use the words “experimental avant-garde” and the like…


Just because I hear people using those words to describe what I see as really different things, so it’s better for dialogue to clarify what a person means. And upon close inspection, even the word “traditional” becomes a very interesting specimen for examination.

If experimental/avant-garde is a marketing description for record stores so customers know where to find Fred Frith and Anthony Braxton records, then that’s one broad meaning that brings with it a lot of aesthetic implications: In general, people will have a vibe about that music and think there will be certain things to expect or not expect; there will be general ideas about structure, timbre, harmonies, melodies and so on the way there would be when people think, “Oh that section over there is jazz,” Or blues… or whatever. It becomes a style with either rules or a bunch of habits that people over a long period of time mostly happened to adhere to.

But if it doesn’t mean a style or anything with aesthetic implications—if it means a method or way of thinking—say, literally experimenting, meaning doing something that you have a hypothesis about, but do not know the outcome of, and out of desire to know the outcome, do the thang, then that is a whole other game. And we are no longer talking about music and we are not even talking about sound anymore—and that’s where it is for lots of people.

And then there is the idea of the avant-garde, of being a pioneer and doing something new to everyone (not just unknown to you as the experimenter) and (possibly slightly-egomaniacally) out of a desire to be thought of as leading everyone to the next new hypnotic badass thang. The scope of all that thought and activity can no longer be bound by the category of music or even sound art or even art—and that is also where it is for some folks.

Mo’ power to them all, including the people who do “experimental” music or avant-garde music that is just a style, not a method, and sounds in 2013 very similar to what people have been doing overtly for 50 years (albeit in small quantity) or so in the Western world…

When I use the phrase “experimental/avant-garde,” I’m referring to music that seeks to cover new ground through sonic experimentation. While I suppose that tacking the phrase “avant-garde” to the end is superfluous and redundant, the term means “vanguard,” or those who push boundaries and are at the forefront of creative discussion. Semantics aside, are labels such a bad thing? Creatives like to bristle at them.

I certainly don’t oppose labels and I can see how they are useful for certain kinds of discussion. But my own perspective about lots of stuff tends to not fit into them. I think that I get categorized by lots of different people as doing “experimental” or “avant-garde” music because of the establishment of a style of music that my stuff has a connection to. I don’t think that people are saying my stuff is experimental because it is really pushing boundaries or leading or being at the front of any creative discussion. My original music is my own and I know that while I may like it and it might even be good for lots of listeners, it is not new—it is not avant-garde and it is not a game-changer for the world of music or sound art or sonic exploration. I just play some string instruments and compose for them. That is well within some very old boundaries.

You don’t see your music as pushing boundaries?

If it is pushing any boundaries, they are not significant ones. They may be boundaries of instrumentation or arrangement, but that’s about it. And even then, I am no pioneer. People have been fusing world music instruments and traditions for a long time already. And structurally, or socially, as in the function that my music plays, I am no boundary pusher: the records that I release and most of my performances are all within the general realm of “entertainment.”

To be an artist and be bound to a venue, a concert, a gallery or an exhibition, I think, is still very much within the most significant boundary in “art.” Anything done within that boundary could be interesting and enlightening, enjoyable, and even really good and timeless. But I find it hard to imagine seeing a work that was still in that boundary and feel like it was truly avant-garde, meaning it was leading us all in a completely new and unthought of “good” direction.

For me, it’s very simple: I’m interested in many things, many of which are new to me. Most of those things are neither experiments nor new, but are rather hundreds or thousands of years old…

Like what?

Such as the kinds of traditional music and meditation practices that I mentioned above. The deep knowledge that they bring me is fucking super-new (to me) and deep and perhaps deeper than anything I have experienced that has been created by the Western modern or postmodern mind. Some of these things are musical and some have nothing to do with music, and they all involve a great deal of attention paid to one’s own consciousness and body and the interactions or unity between/among them.

So what I do is I spend time learning studying and practicing these things, and in the meantime, I just play or compose my own stuff which seems to have a small audience that allows me to make a living. But I am no splash-maker or after any kind of real achievement in the sort of world scene. Perhaps in my early twenties, I wanted to be part of that long and interesting conversation, but now, although I still am enticed by much of what I hear modern artists doing, I can enjoy it without too much thinking that I am part of that interesting new thing. I am more focused on what my personal practice brings me on a daily basis.

photo by Dickson Dee

What’s a typical performance like? What can we expect at the Beijing release party?

I just do solo compositions on instruments and voice. I will definitely have pipa, probably cello, and maybe some other little things. I’ll mostly improvise.

Li Daiguo’s Music for Advertisements will be released on Sat, Apr 20 at Hong Kong’s White Noise Records as part of Record Store Day 2013. Beijing residents will get their dose on Fri, Apr 26 at Temple with both a party and an in-store performance.

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