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A New Listening Experience

November 26, 2012

Liu Sola, “China High” Concert. Beijing, September 16, 2012. Photo credit: Xu Yuebin, "Yan Li and the Yu Jie Studio."

Lao Wu, “China High” Concert. Beijing, September 16, 2012. Photo credit: Xu Yuebin, "Yan Li and the Yu Jie Studio."

Yang Jier, “China High” Concert. Beijing, September 16, 2012. Photo credit: Xu Yuebin, "Yan Li and the Yu Jie Studio."

“China High: Liu Sola & Friends Ensemble”
Special Guest: Liu Yijun, a.k.a. Lao Wu, former guitarist of Tang Dynasty
Beijing, September 16, 2012

For several years now, the 798 Art District in Beijing has been a place where art happens. I have been there to see various art exhibitions, installation art, and performance art. But this was my first time going to an open-air, live musical performance, the “Liu Sola & Friends Ensemble.” As soon as I saw the name I knew it would be a very avant-garde, experimental performance. Plus, the special guest was Lao Wu of Tang Dynasty (I had heard he quit the band a long time ago), whose own unique guitar techniques are very innovative.

The concert was not very long, maybe a little more than an hour, but it included all the main musical instruments of both China and the West. In other words, it blended the unique characteristics of these various instruments, and, coupled with Liu Sola’s singing with no lyrics (my understanding is that her voice is used as a musical instrument, the sound of which is interspersed with classical Chinese melodies), evoked both a familiar and new feeling.

I am not a student of music, but according to Li Suyou, a veteran musician who was standing beside me, even though Sola’s singing alternated between high and low notes, not one of the notes was off. This was very difficult. Additionally, it was as though the busy musical instruments were having a conversation with Sola, each providing the sound needed at the moment. I also want to point out that, because of the use of human hums, chants, shouts, and cries, the audience, without a doubt, also developed an understanding of the emotional ups and downs effected by these “human musical instruments.” Furthermore, Lao Wu’s guitar practically danced along with Sola’s notes, while his fingers, in rarely seen technique, fluttered on the strings of his guitar. The feeling is one of improvisational rapport, engendering a sense of auditory and visual wonder in the listener. In the program list, Sola also used a variety of subject matters and even classical titles: A Celebration of Life and Death, A Chicken at the Temple Fair, Flying Shadow, Dancing Shoes, Mother’s Obedient Child, Prayer Beads of the Immortal, Rhythm Password, Lao Wu and Zhang Yang’s Victory, Dad’s Chair, Boya Throws Zither, Hard Road, and Public Square.

As I said earlier, these pieces were performed without lyrics and only with the human voice in hums, croons, bellows and cries, along with different types of musical instruments. Although it seemed possible to pick out a blend of traditional folk songs and other types of opera tunes—Beijing Opera, Kunqu Opera, etc.—these pieces also made for a new musical experience. You could not get the true meaning of the titles of the pieces just by following the program list. I believe this gave the audience the space to take what they needed from the music, in accordance with their own musical experience. The titles of the pieces merely offered subtle clues. It was not necessary to meticulously decipher the literal meaning of the words. Like the sounds, the words were used as metaphors.

The music’s audio and visual effects were an interpretation of the modern. That is to say, during this experience—with no explicit lyrics and only various kinds of musical melody—what the audience heard was a different kind of "symphony." I view this concert in the context of the traditional symphony. Our generation has become so numb to the traditional symphony. Why? Because what is missing in the traditional form is our creativity, abstract thinking, and music. Therefore, if we experienced Sola’s very creative and experimental concert as a symphony, we could discover many elements of the new era and China. Sola was both a performer and conductor, and seemed very quick-witted and free. I thought: this is what modern symphony can be. Another member of the audience said: "Sola's voice is a mercurial musical instrument, and Lao Wu’s guitar is a talking person!"

Click here to see a video of the concert.

"I Like Dissonance"
Excerpts from a 2011 article on Liu Sola
Originally published on

“I don’t care about labels; a lot of people think that my novels are avant-garde and fresh. Actually this is only because I am a musician, and I write books the same way I create music. Even though I’m older than many of you, I am still very curious about this world and willing to try, explore, and ponder.” Liu Sola spoke of a kind of "abnormal" obsession with music: “To me, every note has a story. I think musical notes are just like people: each note can correspond to a different person. I can see musical notes in everything I look at. I can produce an E Flat from one sip of alcohol. One of my quirks is that I constantly ponder, and when I see the face of each of you, I think of different notes. . . . I like dissonance. People must allow themselves to be dissonant, to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. This is my reflection on life after many years: Sometimes noise can express so much more thought and honesty; and harmony is so often a mask that conceals. When a person tells you only good sounding things, that’s when you need to look out.”

Yan Li (严力) is a Chinese avant-garde poet, novelist, and painter. Born in Beijing in 1954, he was associated with the Stars Group of artists and writers, and the Misty Poets in the late 1970s. He moved to New York in the mid-1980s, where he founded the poetry journal First Line (Yi Hang). His writings have been translated into many languages, and his paintings have been exhibited in the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai.