China’s Experimental Music and Sound Art Practice


                                                                                Adel Wang Jing


To listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside, and it is through such a double, quadruple, or sextuple opening that a “self” can take place.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening


Why make improvisation in various environments? To be simple, different environments provide different experiences, which can stimulate different emotions in different people. Since the experiences are different according to different people, I’d better leave this question to those who participate in environment improvisation—“People ask Hanshan about the Tao. Hanshan answers that he doesn’t know.”(1)

Li Jianhong, sleeve notes of Empty Mountain 

You enter the state of aloneness through listening. Aloneness does not solve any problem immediately… there is a moment of absolute aloneness…I must enlarge this moment, and make it longer, because only in this moment can I clearly feel and understand my existence. This moment, for me, is individual liberation.

Yan Jun, personal communication


To paraphrase Michael Nyman (1974: 4), who argues that “experimental composers are …more excited by the prospect of outlining a situation in which sounds may occur,” I suggest that one desired aspect of China’s experimental music and sound art is to create a situation where affective listening may occur.(2) In particular, it is a situation when listening as alert, deciphering, and signifying is suspended. Based on two kinds of improvisational and experimental music practices, using Li Jianhong’s environment improvisation and Yan Jun’s electronic feedback improvisation as cases, I suggest that both kinds are grounded in and afford affective listening

Affective listening is listening with and to the body. The body here refers not only to the human body, but also to the bodies of animals, plants, and objects. A tree listens affectively to the wind and to the squirrel, which also listens affectively to its surroundings. This is not metaphorically or imaginatively speaking. Instead, one has to switch paradigms and shift perspectives, from that of representation or signification (that commit to structures, meanings and signs) to that of naturalism or materialism (that commit to forces, intensities, and flows). While the paradigms of representation and signification treat sounds as signs, symbols that carry information, the paradigm of naturalism or materialism treats sounds as intensities and vibrating particles. Affective listening proffers a belief in the value of the materiality of sounds, that is, the so-called ‘extras’ of sounds: the extra-symbolic, extra-textual, and extra-discursive. 


This paper consists of two sections. In the first section, I discuss China’s sound art and experimental music practices, focusing on Li Jianhong’s environment improvisation and Yan Jun’s electronic feedback improvisation. In the second section, I began to formulate a model of affective listening by discussing its related elements: a model of sonic materialism, a sensibility for haecceities, the body, and its function in the cultivation of the state of selflessness. 

Sound Art and Experimental Music Practice in China

China’s experimental music and sound art scene began to take shape in the post-Tiananmen era(3) in the late 1990s. A few musicians from the mainland’s underground music scene started to experiment with new ways of making music while the music industry co-opted the once revolutionary and independent rock music scene. The Hong Kong based experimental musician Dickson Dee and the U.S. based artist Yao Dajunin (who now resides in Hangzhou, China) introduced Western avant-garde, experimental music to the mainland through the Internet and through the organization of music tours and festivals. The practice and spread of sound art, particularly installation and performative kinds, was made possible partially by venues such as contemporary art galleries and studios that have come to flourish in the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in recent years. Developed outside of academic and official institutions, China’s sound art and experimental music scene encompasses noise music, experimental music, free improvisation, sound performance art, and sound installation. For the purpose of this paper, I will focus in the following on two leading artists’ practices and ideas: Li Jianhong’s environment improvisation and Yan Jun’s electronic feedback improvisation.

(1)  English translation by Wei Wei. Chinese text: 为什么要到各种环境中去即兴?简单地讲,不同的环境给人不同的体验,能刺激和激发不同人的不同情感。然而,我想既然是不同的体验,哪么这个问题还是留给所有参与到环境即兴中的人自己去体会和回答吧——“人问寒山道,寒山不知道”。

(2) Affect is that which grabs and sparks us in a thing, an event, or a relation. It is, as the English professor Claire Colebrook suggests, defining Deleuze’s conception of affect, “what happens to us when we feel an event…[A]ffect is not the meaning of an experience but the response it prompts” (2002: xix). 

(3) The post-Tiananmen era refers to the period following the June 4th Tiananmen Incident in 1989, which formed both the climax as well as the end of the massive students’ protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing that started in April that year. 

Environment Improvisation

Li Jianhong began to develop “environment improvisation” after an ordinary everyday experience. One day in 2004, Li went to the Mahavira Palace in Faxijiang Temple in the city of Hangzhou. There, he encountered a sudden rainfall. He wrote about this experience in a blog entry, which was later printed on the sleeve of the CD titled Twelve Moods (see Fig. 1). Twelve Moods is the first of the three CDs of Li’s environment improvisation series released in 2011. He wrote:

I did not expect to listen to the rain under the roof of the cloister. After a long time till now, I still remembered the rain—watching it marching towards my direction from the other side of the mountain, then hearing the rain washing over the trees, sensing the smell from the summer earth. The smoke from the burning incense in front of Mahavira Palace was not psychedelic, but when it met and mixed with the rain vapor, it started some visual and aural chemical actions. I heard the chanting sounds from inside of the palace covering the entire temple and mountains. I could not feel the contour of my ears. It became everywhere—suspended above the mountains and the temple wrapped by the rain and chanting sounds. The ear listened with joy and ease. Facing the scene, I thought the best thing to do is to sleep. In fact, I did not consider there was a choice. I fell asleep. I know it was in fact very normal to encounter such a rain in the mountain. The rain, originally that of the universe, became my rain, because I existed that day. After that, I had a thought to make music with rain…. 

Compared to the experience four years ago, the rain this winter sounded quite realistic. The sounds of each raindrop falling onto the ground, the leaves, and the roof were clear and powerful. It seemed that each raindrop, each sound had their individual identity. At night, I could not see the raindrops. But I could vividly feel them right beside my hand. The realistic feeling assured me that this was the best moment to make music with them.(4)

Listening to the rain is an ordinary event in everyday life. What I find uncommon in this event is the connectivity formed between sounds and the listener, particularly the listener’s body embedded in that unique time-space. Imagine that your ears become everywhere and falling asleep becomes your body’s immediate response. It seems to me that Li not only listened to the rain but also felt into it with his body. While sleeping, his body opened up to the virtual sonic domain mixed with the rain sounds, chants from the temple, sounds and echoes from the mountains. The Qi(5) of his body flowed, expanded, and vibrated in the cosmic sonic field. 

Twelve Moods is devoted to rain improvisation; it contains twelve tracks of Li’s improvisations with different rain situations. In different tracks, sounds of the rain differ in intensity, speed, and tempo. The titling of the twelve sound tracks of Twelve Moods also demonstrates, through the stylistic choice made, Li’s sensitivity to the vitality and intensity of the rain. 

  1. * * * Rain
  2. * Rain * * * 
  3. Curtains of Rain
  4. * * * * Rain * *
  5. When you sigh about the loneliness of rain
  6. Rain Cleaner
  7. * * Rain *
  8. Rain * * *
  9. * Rain *
  10. * * Rain 
  11. Sit by the night window, waiting for the wind and the rain
  12. Hmm, I’m watching the rain



Unlike traditional Zither or Gu Qin players who are also known for playing in and with the natural environment, Li does not imitate or represent rain sounds with his guitar. Neither do his guitar sounds ‘talk to’ the rain sounds. He plays and improvises in the manner that the rain situations prompt him to do. He is not passive in this process. Rather, he listens actively. In a few tracks, there are even long periods of time when there are only rain sounds. The musician is listening to the rain at the same time I am listening to it.

Hmm, I’m watching the rain

Li explained in an experimental music workshop held in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that in environment improvisation he is not in an equal relation with environmental sounds, and there is no one-on-one dialogue between him and nature (Wang 2011).(6) Instead, the environment coexists with his playing, as one. He came to such a realization after an epiphany, or rather, a frustration: during a mountain trip for his environment improvisation in 2009, Li planned to record an early morning improvisation before he found out that local villagers got up much earlier than he expected. While he was beset by the thoughts that his recording was being ruined by villagers’ loud chatter, it occurred to him that he had been limiting environmental sounds to only natural ones. He recognized that any kind of environmental sounds should be possible to improvise with, and he should not purposefully select a particular environment with certain pre-conceived conditions: early morning natural sounds in the mountains, for example. Excited with this new idea, he went into a pigpen and recorded his improvisation with pigs, the sound track of which was collected in Here Is It, the third CD among the environment improvisation series. 


Talks at the Pigsty

In Here Is It (see Fig. 2), one hears an expanded range of environment improvisation, including Li’s improvisation with a TV, with a friend telling a ghost story, and with friends having tea. Listening to the three CDs, one recognizes that Li has gradually extended his concept of the environment from natural ones to include social and cultural ones. Furthermore, he treats environments and sounds as independent and autonomous entities, rather than a background or foreground of his improvisation. As he explained in the workshop, the kind of relationship that comes into existence between the environment and the improviser is not determinable. Li also suggests that in environment improvisation, there is no division between subjects (the musicians) and objects (the environment and environmental sounds). Instead, there are two subjects, or rather no subjects at all. The environment is as active as the musician-listener. The rain “listens” to the guitar sounds and the musician. The pigs “listen” to Li’s guitar sounds and his presence while Li improvises with the grunting pigs and buzzing flies. 

However, while Li opens up to and interacts with various types of environments, he does not improvise with just any kind. He emphasizes that he improvises with an environment in which he feels comfortably situated. This kind of situated-connectivity with the environment is, in my opinion, what differentiates environment improvisation from field recordings that primarily focus on the sounds in the environment. Moreover, unlike free improvisers who focus on improving their instrumental skills and ability to improvise with fellow musicians, Li stresses, first of all, the importance of one’s ability to situate with(in), that is, to feel into, a certain environment. This ability of feeling into or being situated is related to how and to what extent one could be affected by an environment, how and what certain stimuli and their related affects prompt one to do. Like a Butoh dancer who weaves herself in the dancing environment and who dances with the inner flows of the body rather than techniques, Li weaves himself into the sounding environment and improvises with his body (the idea of “body” will be discussed more below).

From Li’s environment improvisation, we capture a mode of listening that is not interpretive but affective. As a free improviser, Li does not listen to the relationships between different sounds in the way that traditional Western music education trains one to listen. Neither is he listening as a phenomenologist or a psychoanalyst; he did not listen to the rain as a signal of an alert, as carrying messages from higher beings, or as an unconscious field within which his own desire will be explored.When he listens, his body does not function as a filter that picks up recognizable signals. Instead, his body is a channel through which the intensity of sounds passes. In his environment improvisation, Li’s listening body, including both his ears and all the other organs, acts as a sponge, absorbing the sonic intensity and at the same time generating new sounds with his hands pressing, rubbing or plucking the strings on his guitar. From a naturalist perspective, the Qi of his listening body is affected by and affects the Qi of the mountain, the temple and the rain. The difference amidst the musician, the environment, and the improvised sounds is no longer that of human, nature, and art, but of intensities, speeds and affects.  


Departing from Li Jianhong’s environment improvisation, I will now turn to Yan Jun’s electronic feedback improvisation. While differing according to the kinds of instruments they use and the spaces of their live performances, their styles of free improvisation are connected in how they listen; both emphasize relaxation of the body in order to listen, perform and improvise. 

(4) A blog entry by Li Jianhong on 22 November 2010, titled Written before Shi’er Jing [Twelve Moods]. The tracks of Twelve Moods are available for listening at China Free Improvisation. 

(5) Qi, as in Qigong, is often interpreted as energy or spirit of nature, cosmos and individual human beings. Both traditional Chinese medicine and Qigong are based on unblocking and balancing of Qi.  

(6) Li Jianhong, Yan Jun, Wang Fan and Jonathan Chen lectured in a workshop about Chinese sound art and experimental music organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in April 2011. 

Mind Fiber (Li Jianhong & VAVABOND) environment improvisation in 2008

Album cover design of Twelve Moods

Album cover design of Here it is

Electronic Feedback Improvisation

Yan Jun began to explore electronic feedback improvisation at the end of 2006 when he decided to give up using laptops. Inspired by the Japanese Onkyo music practice, featuring artists among which Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide, Yan Jun invented and developed his feedback sound system. “While performing with the feedback set,” Yan Jun said in an interview, “I move forward to the unknown. I listen to my relation to the devices, the environment, noticing what kind of sounds the set wants to produce. I try to empty myself and give up my ego, otherwise it will be a disaster.”(7)


Yan Jun’s feedback system includes an orbitor electronic listening device, an audio mixer, two speakers, delay effect, equalizer and a pair of PA loudspeakers. The whole system is designed to show how sounds form a cosmos through feedback. On the picture he drew (see Fig. 3), Yan Jun wrote, “Tao is nothingness. Within the system of the mixer and wires, in a certain moment, a single sound occurs. Through feedback, this single sound becomes two; the two sounds are enriched through the system, and become three. Then sounds are emitted through loudspeakers to the outside, thus becoming everything.”(8)

The orbitor electronic listening device(9) can capture distant sounds from 300 feet away. Yan Jun uses it as a microphone. The device is normally used outdoors to record the sounds of nature, such as sounds from birds and animals, and is thus an ideal audio recorder for field recordings. Yan Jun revealed, “In the beginning, it was a pain to use the orbitor electronic listening device. Sounds were extremely boring and piercing. I always wanted it to become gentler, but in the end it became more violent, uncontrollable. It becomes an instrument where sounds break.”(10) The delay effect is used to (re)approach the most original feedback, within a minimum time period. The equalizer is designed to adjust feedbacks of different frequencies in a rather inaccurate manner. This inaccuracy adds to the instability of the feedback set. However, the equalizer is only a small contributor to the instability of the whole system. What is more important, according to Yan Jun, is the character of the space, the PA and amplifiers, which are further out of his control. 


There are three sound sources in his feedback system: the PA loudspeakers, two small speakers, and an additional speaker (not drawn in the picture). Later, Yan Jun added two small speakers to the system, which would make sounds distorted. And he liked it. For him, the breaking of sound realizes the third step in the cosmic operation: Three produced all things. “Violence and destruction is contained in life. Loss of control is the basis of the growth of everything,” said Yan. (11)

Compared with Li Jianhong’s guitar improvisation, Yan Jun’s feedback improvisation requires little bodily movement. In general, after finishing the installation of the feedback system, and only for a few times throughout the entire live performance Yan adjusts the volume, moves the orbitor electronic listening device, or throws a few coins onto the speakers. Most of the time, Yan listens attentively with his head lowered towards the feedback set (see Fig.4). Like Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura, known for their no-input performances, Yan considers listening as the most basic and central element in his various sound art projects.

Each feedback improvisation is an event of listening. Listening even becomes a defining element of sound art for Yan Jun. In an interview, he said, “For me, everything that makes or has sound could potentially be sound art, and it depends on how I listen to it. Popular music could be sound art, depending on how I listen to it and how I can cause other people to listen to it.”(12) Yan Jun’s listening seems to be focused and interior: 

Over these years of practices and performances, I gradually realized and was confirmed in my awareness that the sounds I enjoy in my work are those that are piercing, full of ambiguity, and which make listeners and myself uncomfortable. I do not feel moved or excited when I make sounds that are beautiful. Instead, I feel moved when hearing sounds that make me feel alone, those that make me listen by myself with myself, insulated from other things. These are my favorite sounds. My listeners are those who are alone, or those who become alone through my sounds, at least currently in my process.(13)


One may say that it is the quality and mode of listening rather than the sound itself that Yan is primarily concerned with. Listening, in particular “affective listening,” is the basis and beginning of Li and Yan’s free improvisation. For Yan, it is also the result. Based on both artists’ practices and ideas, and to pave the way for a further development of the model of affective listening, I discuss, in the following, a few elements that characterize affective listening, including its related ontological model, a sensibility for haecceities, its relation to the body, and its function in the cultivation of the state of selflessness.  

(7) Interview with the author, 2010, Beijing. Author’s translation. 

(8) The idea comes from the philosophy of Taoism: 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物 [The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity]. For more, see Taodejing, Chapter 42.


(9) According to Yan Jun, the orbitor electronic listening device is professionally known as a parabolic microphone. He uses a toy version in his set. 

(10) Interview with the author, 2010, Beijing. Author’s translation.

(11) Personal communication, 2012.

(12) Interview with the author. Beijing, 2010. 

(13) Ibid. 

Illustration of the feedback sound system drawn by Yan Jun

Yan Jun’s feedback improvisation in Hong Kong, 2011

Yan Jun and his feedback set. Courtesy of the artist.

Towards Affective Listening

Sound and Listening: Sonic Materialism

Arguably, how one perceives sounds affects to a certain extent how one listens. From a semiotic approach, Roland Barthes groups sounds into three kinds: indices, signs, and shimmering of signifiers. Correspondingly, he describes listening as alert, deciphering and signifying. Barthes speaks highly of psychoanalysts’ mode of listening, from which he generates a kind of listening as signifying. He claims that listening in psychoanalysis revises the notion of listening. Psychoanalysts do not listen to indices or signs. Instead, they listen to the realm of the unconscious of patients, or as Barthes brings it further, the patients’ desire. Psychoanalysts listen to what is not narrated, and they enter an inter-subjective space with the speaker. Entering the other’s desire implies the possibility that one ultimately finds oneself there (Barthes 1991: 256). For Barthes, this kind of listening is active as well as creative. In the realm of the unconscious, there is no established sign system for the listener to recognize or decode. Instead, the listener participates in an endless process of producing meanings. Barthes listens to John Cage’s composition in the way a psychoanalyst listens to his or her patient. 

“It is each sound one after the next that I listen to, not in its syntagmatic extension, but in its raw and as though vertical signifying…,” says Barthes (1991: 259). He calls the rawness of sounds “the shimmering of signifiers.” And he uses the verb signify to capture the active process during which one listens to the “raw” or the “shimmering” of sounds as signifiers. He stresses, “This phenomenon of shimmering is called signifying [significance], as distinct from signification” (1991: 256-259). However, we might still see that, for Barthes, listening as signifying is interpretation, which may, nonetheless, never arrive at a definitive conclusion. It seems questionable as to how much Barthes could hear Cage’s call—let sound be sound—within this semiotic framework (Cage 1961). In my opinion, Barthes’ approach fails to acknowledge the autonomy or, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s word, the haecceity of sound, which requires no agency behind its becoming. 

To let sound be sound, one has to first of all let go of the desire for making sense of, or signifying, sounds. This is what naturalism might do. Rather than asking what a sound is like or means, it focuses on the physical and biological aspects of sounds. The naturalist perspective is already shared among musicians and theorists. In his book Sonic Warfare, Steve Goodman (2010) categorizes sound according to its physicality, as audible sound, infrasound (sounds with frequencies below 20Hz) and ultrasound (sounds with frequencies above 20 kHz). Infrasound is tactile and may cause nausea and the inhibition of respiration. Ultrasound is neuro-affective, and may cause cavitations, heating of the body or tissue damage with prolonged exposure. Along the same line, the Chinese experimental musician Wang Fan defines sound as consisting of vibrational particles that exit in forms of 音体[sound entities], 音团[sound clusters], and 音粒 [sound particles]. He believes that different frequencies of sounds trigger different affective reactions in the listening body. Steve Goodman calls this affective capacity of sound “vibrational affect.” Vincent Meelberg, drawing upon David Huron’s research, further discusses the physical and biological impact of sound on a body. Meelberg points out that sound evokes chills, autonomous reactions of the listener’s body, and he calls sounds that can elicit biological responses (chills) sonic strokes (Meelberg 2009). Taking a naturalist approach, particularly that of Nietzsche and Deleuze, Christoph Cox formulates a theoretical model of sonic materialism, which is significant in taking account of experimental music and sound art practices. 

The model of sonic materialism, as Christoph Cox argues, shares the ontology of what “Nietzsche calls becoming and Deleuze describes as haecceities” (2011).According to Cox, the model suggests ‘an ontological commitment’ to forces, intensities and becoming. It prevents ‘the way of thinking in terms of representation and signification, and to draw distinctions between culture and nature, human and nonhuman, mind and matter, the symbolic and the real, the textual and the physical, the meaningful and the meaningless.’ The model deals with, as Cox quotes Friedrich Kittler, “the waste or residue that neither the mirror of the imaginary nor the grid of the symbolic can catch: the physiological accidents and stochastic order of bodies” (2011: 153-157). The model of sonic materialism captures the material world, including frequency, vibration, and molecular movements. Although it is developed through sonic practices mainly coming from the West, this model shares a similar sensibility with the affective listening contextualized in China’s free improvisation and experimental music practices. 


A Sensibility for Haecceities

To listen affectively is to develop a connection to the extra-symbolic, extra-textual, and extra-discursive aspects of sounds. This requires a sensibility for the Qi of the material or natural world. I want to first use a relatively familiar example to illustrate such a sensibility. In Chinese ink painting,(14) we often see mountains, rivers or clouds without being able to tell the exact outline of each. That is, there is no definite and clear indication of where a stroke begins and where it ends. Despite such ambiguity, however, we are still able to distinguish the mountain, the river and the cloud. The painting does not represent a mountain, a river, or a cloud. Instead, it captures their Qi, or the entities’ spirits that make one distinct from another. The Qi of each entity is expressed through a combination of elements, including the density of the ink, the speed of a stroke of the brush, the empty space in-between strokes, the pressure of one’s wrist on the brush and the brush on the rice paper, as well as the Qi of the painter. 

The idea of Qi, as I would like to argue, corresponds to what Deleuze and Guattari call haecceity in A Thousand Plateaus

There is a mode of individuation very different from that of a person, subject, thing, or substance. We reserve the name haecceity for it. A season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and be affected. (1987: 261)(15)

Just like the Qi of the mountain, the river, or a fish, the haecceity of 'a person, subject, thing or substance’ is not to be described or communicated, but to be felt. Although Chinese philosophy, such as Taoism or Chan Buddhism, has a tendency toward mystification, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that there is nothing mysterious in the perception of haecceities of things. They explain, “We say, ‘What a story!’ ‘What heat!’ ‘What a life!’ to designate a very singular individuation. The hours of the day in Lawrence, in Faulkner. A degree of heat, an intensity of white, are perfect individualities” (1987: 261). 

Many artworks suggest their creator’s sensibility for the Qi or haecceities of things. Chinese ink painting artists and Chinese calligraphers specialized in semi-cursive calligraphy are examples of artists with such sensibility. Virginia Woolf, one of the sources for Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of haecceity, also embodies such sensibility in her writing. “‘The thin dog is running in the road, this dog is the road,’ cries Virginia Woolf. That is how we need to feel. Spatiotemporal relations, determinations, are not predicates of the thing but dimensions of multiplicities” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 263). Similar to the idea of Qi, which does not suggest a direction or a cause, a haecceity, as Deleuze and Guattari explain, “has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines” (263). 

Affective listening is to feel into the Qi, or the haecceity of sounds, to enter the spatiotemporal relations of sounds, and to be affected by the intensities, forces and flows of sounds. In addition, affective listening is not a privileged experience only for musicians. Virginia Woolf, again, is an example of a non-musician who listens affectively: “I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace…” (Woolf, quoted in Toop 2010: 34). Another writer, Clarice Lispector, also conveys such sensibility, “I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music—I rest my hand lightly on the turntable and my hand vibrates, spreading waves through my whole body: that’s how I hear the electricity of the vibration, the ultimate substratum in the domain of reality, and the world trembles in my hands” (1989: 5).


Of course, being a musician does not necessarily mean that one listens affectively. In an essay written in 1938, published much later in 2000, John Cage talks about the function of the modern music he was involved with, and suggests that musical knowledge or being a musician does not help with listening. In his opinion, listening to music and composing music are two different things. His proposal that music needs not be understood, but rather must be heard, foregrounds his life-long artistic endeavor. He writes: 

What can we expect to be the result of attentive listening to music? I believe that listening to music makes for our lives another world, living in which, somehow, our hearts beat faster and a mysterious excitement fills us. And the natural flow of sounds which music is reassures us of order just as the sequence of the seasons and the regular alternation of night and day do. (1938: 19)

In this quote, Cage suggests that we listen attentively to music through our bodies as a physical or even spiritual experience. Listening to music is to live in and with a world.No matter what one uses to finally express one’s experience of the Qi or haecceities of sounds, an affective listener, who might by profession be a writer, a musician, a dancer, a mathematician or a salesperson, et cetera, immerses herself in the sounding materials, registering the haecceities rather than the meanings of sounds. Affective listeners engage the world first of all through felt perceptions, before experience and understanding. What is felt perception, as Massumi concisely put, is the variation of intensity (2002: 15). To feel into sounds is to vibrate with the variation of sonic intensities, rather than to control or signify them. It is like Clarice Lispector, to put one’s hands lightly on the turntable and let the hand and the body vibrate with sounds. It is also to treat sounds as if they carry a certain kind of individuation, which is “not reduced to a subject (I) or even to the combination of a form and a material” (Deleuze 2006: 158). 

A sensibility for haecceities distinguishes affective listening from other listening modes, such as musical listening, reduced listening, and aesthetic listening. Affective listening is actively involved with the sonic materials in the way Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘reduced listening’ is. However, affective listening does not attempt a phenomenological reduction concentrating on sounds regardless of contexts. Contexts are important in affective listening because one reaches different degrees of relaxation within different kinds of contexts. Degrees of relaxation affect the Qi of the listener or performer as well as one’s ability to capture or feel into the Qi of the sounding environment.

In her study of electronic and experimental music, the musicologist Joanne Demers proposes that electronic and experimental music affords aesthetic listening, similar as to how western listeners listen to popular and non-western music. “Aesthetic listening allows intermittent attention to sounds as well as other sensory stimuli” (Demers 2010: 164). Affective listening is similar to aesthetic listening in that both do not demand listeners to have any previously-formed knowledge of the sounds, or to focus on the development of sounds as “musical listening.”(16) But an affective listener pays constant attention to sounds without excluding other sensory stimuli. In Li Jianhong’s environment improvisation and Yan Jun’s feedback improvisation, they are both musicians and listeners. They emphasize paying attention to sounds as well as the environment as they perform and listen. If one treats those sounds as background sounds and thus engages in other activities (e.g., chatting, eating, messaging, making phone calls, reading), one is not going to be able to capture the haecceities of those sounds. In other words, one is not going to listen affectively. 

Furthermore, affective listening is listening with and to one’s own body as well as that of others. Recall Li Jianhong’s story. During the listening-event, he did not listen to the rain as music, or as “it is.” Affective listening is listening to sounds neither as sounds nor as music. There is no as involved, because conscious perception has not yet entered. One feels into the variations of the intensity of sounds, the movement of sonic molecules, in a way similar to how Yan Jun listens to feedback sounds and Li Jianhong listens to environmental sounds. 


The Body

Affective listening is what a sensing body does. The mind alone can not listen affectively. On the plane of a sensing body, listening is synesthetic, with senses participating among each other (Massumi 2002: 35). Drawing from Taoism, the body is Qi. Traditional Chinese medicine, informed by Taoism, treats the human body as closely connected to the outside world; the body is an organic whole interconnected by organs, meridians and collaterals. To treat the body, the doctor pays special attention to the seven affects which are related to different organs, and six pathogens which are related to outside factors, known as wind, cold, hot, dampness, dryness. Qi is considered the most important substance for a body, and its movement, together with blood and other bodily fluids, maintains a body’s activity. A sick body is diagnosed in conjunction within its relation with cultural, social and environmental milieus. The relation resides not only in the moment of now, but in the past and the future. The Qi of the body is never static, nor is it separate from others. This is similar to Spinoza’s emphasis on a body’s capacity. As Massumi explains, “Spinoza defined the body in terms of ‘relations of movement and rest.’ He wasn’t referring to actual, extensive movements or stases. He was referring to a body capacity to enter into relations of movement and rest. This capacity he spoke of as a power (or potential) to affect or be affected” (2002: 15).

Therefore, the body is not a fixed structure, but one that is constantly undergoing modification and transformation. The capacity of the body to enter into relations of movement and rest with sounding materials makes affective listening possible. Here, we can give a more insightful account of Li Jianhong’s listening body, which fell asleep in the rainy and misty sonorous field. Listening taking place within the milieu of the body is multimodal in nature. The temperature, humidity, smell, light, surfaces of the wooden benches in the temple, together with sounds, made listening simultaneously smelling, seeing, touching and feeling. The body releases itself from its framing function, which is described as a subtractive act by the Dutch musicologist Vincent Meelberg. He writes, 

According to both Bergson and Hansen, the body, as the primary enframer of information, functions as a filter that selects perceptions relevant to the body. This is a subtractive act, as the body takes relevant percepts from the unfiltered flux of perceptions. It introduces specific constraints on what can amount to relevant aspects of a percept (relevant to the body, that is), and the body is always functioning as this enframer during each perception. (2009: 326)

Before it enframes or subtracts, the body is overwhelmed in “the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies” (Massumi 2002). It is virtual; it has not yet actualized what it feels. To actualize means to signify or express. Brian Massumi argues that the body is simultaneously virtual and actual. He points out the dynamic relation between the two: 

The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies, is a realm of potential… the virtual is a lived paradox where what are normally opposites coexist, coalesce, and connect; where what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt… for out of the pressing crowd an individual action or expression will emerge and be registered consciously. One “wills” it to emerge, to be qualified to take on sociolinguistic meaning, to enter linear action-reaction circuits, to become a content of one’s life—by dint of inhibition. (2002: 30-31)

Massumi further stresses, “it is the edge of virtual, where it leaks into actual, that counts. For that seeping edge is where potential, actually, is found” (2002: 43). In an ideal situation, affective listening occurs in the virtual. However, affective listening is often mixed with, or quickly taken over by, sense making, predicting and reflecting. Thus, affective listening requires practice. On the surface, it might seem lazy for the body not to filter and for the mind not to interpret. In actual practice, however, it proves to be quite difficult to allow the body and the mind to function in alternative ways, inhibiting their habitual responses. The practice presents a paradox: the body is in a relaxed mode in order to avoid enframing, but effort is required in order to achieve the relaxed mode.

Following this discussion of the ontological model of sonic materialism associated with affective listening, its related sensibility for Qi or haecceities, and its relation to the body, the most urgent of my remaining questions is: what does affective listening do if it does not acquire information or interpret meanings. To begin to answer to this question, I devote the last part of this paper to discussing one function of affective listening: the cultivation of the state of selflessness, drawing from both fieldwork research as well as existing scholarship. 


The Cultivation of the State of Selflessness

The cultivation of the state of selflessness involves a transmutation through planes, from a stratified plane to a smooth one—the plane of consistency, or the plane of immanence, or the Tao. The plane of immanence, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is distinct from a Platonist or Kantian ‘plane of transcendence’ which directs and organizes life and which refers to something beyond experience. Instead, the plane of immanence refers to a domain where there are only intensities, forces and flows and from which forms, structures, organizations, and significations are drawn (Cox 2003; Deleuze and Guattari 1987).In my fieldwork research, I noticed Li Jianhong and Yan Jun’s emphasis on the cultivation of self to reach a certain state of existence, that is 无我 [selflessness]. For example, in an interview, Yan Jun calls this kind of existence aloneness or individual liberation: 

You enter the state of aloneness through listening. Aloneness does not solve any problem immediately. It is there to confront you with existing by yourself. Many musicians like to say that their music is to help listeners forget their loneliness. This is a shame, a drug. It is like drinking poison to quench thirst.(17) It is an illusion that we create to comfort ourselves, but that is the logic for those musicians. My logic is that we exist in the world alone. We must make an effort to admit and face this fact. Only after its acceptance can we be with other people who are also alone. We should not hide or attempt to forget this fact by hanging out with friends, eating, drinking together, or getting married. I am not against having parties with friends. But after those parties, you go back home by yourself. Even if you go back with your partner, before falling asleep, there is a moment of absolute aloneness. For many people, this moment is too short to be noticed. But I must enlarge this moment, make it longer, because only in this moment can I clearly feel and understand my existence. This moment, for me, is individual liberation.(18)

For Yan Jun, listening to feedback sounds is a process of disconnecting oneself from familiarities to arrive at “the moment” of absolute aloneness. Listening unravels one from one’s social self, objectified self, and imagined self. It is also a process of transmuting from “a plane of organization” or “a teleological plane” to “the plane of immanence,” or the Tao (Cox 2003; Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 265). The state of selflessness suggests an ontological commitment to the haecceities of things, rather than their representations or meanings. 

The relation between listening and self (its existence and non-existence) is explored by David Michael Levin. In the following, I will turn to Levin’s discussion of self and listening, to identify theoretical connections and disconnections for a future development of the model of affective listening. 

In his book The Listening Self, philosopher David Michael Levin discussed an interesting experiment to help illustrate his idea of “just listening,” identified as the fourth or the final stage in his listening model.(19) The empirical research involved testing the electroencephalography (EEG) responsiveness of some Zen monks in Japan. Researchers exposed Zen monks who had practiced meditation for years to a single, repeated sound over a long period of time and found that their EEG responsiveness remained constantly strong, alert, and fresh throughout. Levin reflects that “whereas most of us would have found ourselves painfully bored, once we had become thoroughly familiar with the sound and habituated to its stimulation, and would eventually have blocked it out, not even hearing it, these monks continued to respond, to greet the sound, with an astonishing freshness and pleasure” (225). 

For Levin, these Zen monks are in the state of “just listening,” which he described as “listening without getting entangled in the ego’s stories and preoccupations” (1989: 48-49). He claims that “just listening” or hearkening (a term he takes from Heidegger) is a mode or style of listening practiced only by very few people. In the listening model he constructs, Levin ranks “just listening” as the highest one among the four. For Levin, “just listening” is to re-experience stimulation as an infant does: to re-intertwine with the world. This is only possible when we become conscious of our particular and habitual ways of focusing and channeling. 

According to Levin, the way an infant listens characterizes the first stage of listening, when ‘the infant lives in a bodily felt inherence in the openness of the sonorous matrix and hears with—hears through—the entire body: “The infant’s ears are the body as a whole” (1989: 45). During the process of acculturation and socialization, one develops the second and third stages of listening, when one simultaneously practices self-discipline, becomes ego-logical, and develops a sense of self. Levin suggests that most people will stop developing their listening skills at the third stage: when listening helps to increase their capacity for compassion as well as sensuous and affective appreciation. 

Inspired by Zen teaching that an enlightened person has no attachment to her mind, Levin describes “just listening” as “a continuous felt contact with the sheer vibrancy of the field” (1989: 227). He explains that when we achieve such a sensibility, our perception is no longer in a grasping mode, and at the same time, objects stop functioning as the target of our attachments (attraction and aversion). In addition, Levin claims that “just listening” is often “a playful listening, a listening which enjoys itself, a listening whose ultimate purpose is to be without a purpose” (231). The listening self in the fourth stage finds itself “inseparably intertwined with its object,” and one’s ego no longer structures listening. 

Furthermore, “just listening” or listening with releasement suggests a kind of return. Levin calls it retrieval. If through the second and third stage—everyday listening and skillful listening—the listening subject gradually formulates an ego-logical self and develops listening habits through conventions and socialization, the fourth stage is when one becomes conscious of one’s particular way of channeling and focusing. Retrieval refers to one’s efforts to re-experience the sonorous field like an infant and to re-intertwine with the world. To put it in Levin’s words: 

This retrieval informs our listening, because what is retrieved is a bodily carried pre-understanding of our relationship to Being: a preconceptual experience which is not left behind when we grow out of infancy, and which continues to function, throughout our lives and at all times, as the opening situation of our hearing. (231)

Levin outlines a sophisticated model of “just listening,” a mode he considered important for one to develop mature wisdom. Levin’s model of listening is important in conceiving the relation between listening and self. However, I would like to point out a few things that do not seem to work when practicing affective listening. I would argue that in the process of analysis he somehow lost the dimension of the body. In fact, he only concretely discusses the relation between sound and the body in the first stage of listening. When it comes to the body in the fourth stage, he primarily compares it to the body in the first stage. By ranking “just listening” as the last stage, as well as providing the example of the empirical research with Zen Monks, Levin has suspiciously made the mode of “just listening” a supreme “state of being.” 

While using examples of Zen practice, especially Zen meditation, to support his argument, Levin neglects the important role of the physical and biological body in meditative practices. The empirical research with Japanese Zen monks also neglected to measure these monks’ breathing, which is central to their meditative practice. In other words, in this research, neither the researchers nor Levin recognized that meditation is never a purely mental thing and that one’s bodily conditions—ways of breathing and relationship with surroundings—are crucial elements that affect one’s brainwaves. 

To stay “strong, alert and fresh” not only involves the releasement of the mind, but also the releasement of the body. Affective listening is first and foremost a bodily experience; sound acts first on the body, the nervous system. 

Although both “affective listening” and “just listening” are related to Buddhism and Taoism, there is a difference between “affective listening” as I formulate it and Levin’s notion of “just listening.”In affective listening, there is not necessarily a harmony of self and others in listening’s access to a self. Rather, there is often a sense of rupture, pressure, and urgency in this access. Affective listening suggests a sense of cruelty as well as pleasure to the body and the self. It is sonorous or acoustic penetration. Sound entails an attack at the same time that it shelters; we often see people covering their ears at a live experimental music or noise music concert. Yan Jun seeks discomforting sounds in his listening experience. He tries to engage the listener in an anxiety-ridden state: those unknown, unstable and uncontrollable moments when no egos, subjects or selves exist. In the process of listening, the listening self that is becoming self-less is thrown over the edge of a familiar tone. In a concert held in the gallery Manufactura’s Studio in Wuhan in 2010, the sudden yell of Li Jianhong in the middle of his guitar improvisation surprised everyone. Most of the audience members attending that concert were musicians and artists who were already familiar with Li’s performance style, but from their reactions it appeared that they experienced a refreshing listening experience.(20)

Compared to Levin’s model of “just listening,” affective listening is more visceral and more intense. If Levin’s model represents a Western middle class or bourgeois understanding of Buddhism (Zen in Japan and Chan in China) as serene, peaceful, pleasant and harmonious, affective listening points to the cruelty, violence, and disharmony within other realities of Buddhism: enlightenment follows a heavy hit on the head. One only sees Buddha by abandoning all kinds of knowledge of Buddha. Affective listening helps one engage sounds and one’s self without relying on knowledge but through a capacity to be affected by sounds or the sounding environment. It is Deleuze and Guattari’s “destratification” or “deterritorialization” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In the process of affective listening, the socialized and imagined selves are unmade to the point of emergence or non-existence. 

Affective listening is where self-transformation occurs and where the self ventures from home. If the chief modus operandi of art, as the art scholar Simon O’Sullivan says, is to transform “our sense of our ‘selves’ and our notion of our world” (2001: 128), affective listening is no doubt an art event by itself. 

Kill the Buddha. 


Listen. Transform. Exist. 

(14) Here I recommend exploring writer and artist Gao Xingjian’s ink paintings. 

(15) Deleuze and Guattari derive the concept of haeeceity from Duns Scotus (1266-1308), who coined haecceitas from Latin haec, “this thing.” However, Deleuze and Guattari use the term not to refer to a thing or a subject, but a non-personalized or anonymous individuation. See note 33 in A Thousand Plateaus, p. 540.  

(16) Roger Scruton suggests that while engaging in musical listening, the listeners pay attention to elements such as rhythm, harmonies, melodies, and forms. These elements, especially in art music and western classical music, also encourage musical listening. Roger Scruton (1997). The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Based on Scruton’s definition, musical listening is developed through one’s experience and knowledge of elements, structures and forms of music composition. This knowledge and experience helps one to predict the progress of the piece and to make evaluations based on canonical standards and rules. Arguably, one’s pleasure in musical listening comes from the sense of control (or prediction) of the musicial performance, which confirms and conforms to one’s previous knowledge and experience. 

(17) A Chinese saying: 饮鸩止渴

(18) Interview with the author, 13 July 2010, Beijing. Author’s translation.

(19) The four stages of Levin’s listening model include: primordial attunement, everyday listening, skillful developed listening, and just listening (or hearkening). 

(20) Click here for a video clip of Li Jianhong’s improvisation. 


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