The external aspects of Li Daiguo’s performance inevitably grab you first: his stage presence and look are quite striking, and then there’s the sheer number of instruments he plays.
On Handmade he plays at least fifteen instruments, taken from various folk, classical, and popular contexts: viola, banhu, sihu, erxian, cello, pipa, nanyin pipa, bawu, hulusi, mbira, kalimba, voice, clarinet, kantele, and Vietnamese mouth harp. He is likely the only guy in the world to make a record with this particular collection of instruments. The collection he brought to the show that inspired this review, at the (hopefully temporarily) defunct Live Sound Garage, was smaller but certainly still impressive.
He has benefited from learning so many instruments not only in the variety of sounds and flavors and are therefore available to him in performance and on records, but also for the techniques it has opened for him by transferring a traditional technique from one instrument to another where it isn’t traditional. Since the majority of the instruments he plays are string instruments, transferring techniques like this should be slightly less of a headache than it would be otherwise. For example, he uses the right hand plucking techniques from the pipa on the viola or cello in the first track and the polyrhythmic tradition of the mbira on the pipa in the second.
You might doubt my saying that these aspects aren’t superficial when I’ve only discussed technique and instrumentation so far, but the breadth of sound of the many instruments Li Daiguo plays and his desire to cross the lines of tradition and stretch technical boundaries are a fundamental part of his approach to the substance of the music as well.
I have always thought that Sonic Youth was such an apt name for an avant-garde group because one of the main objectives of free or avant-garde music is to continue to experience the thrill of discovery that music gives you as a child. When I first got an electric bass I had no idea really what it was or what I was supposed to do with it. I certainly remember the googly-eyed wonder I felt at this world of sound I had entered. It’s a complicated subject, the desire to experience constant youth or to bottle it, but there’s no doubt that most musicians want to keep moving forward and keep discovering, and the stock avant-garde approach gives a pleasingly simple solution to that problem: don’t do anything familiar. Even John Lennon started writing mostly at the piano later in his career because he knew the guitar too well. Li Daiguo, like most of the musicians who have excited me the most in the past ten years such as Chris Lightcap and Guillermo Klein, seems to not be concerned with the mid-century experimental dogma (cf. twelve-tone music) that forbade the traditional. Of course, as an exercise and a way to push growth it is of course fine to tell yourself “whatever I do I’m not going to play/write thing X that is easy for me,” but if that becomes a fundamental part of who you are you risk making music that sounds like an exercise. At this point, at least in Europe and America, there’s so little aesthetic superstructure left to tear down. I think that people like the ones I mentioned are realizing that melody, harmony, and rhythm are gifts from our ancestors who developed them and that, while a little creative destruction is fine to clear a little room for yourself, there’s no need to be dogmatic about it.
I think Li Daiguo is one who does realize this. He has made a beautiful solo album that crosses boundaries of form, instrumentation, and color. Though he is usually an improviser and works frequently with various collaborators, these tunes were all written beforehand and the only musician on the album is him, though usually on multiple instruments through overdubbing. It’s not pop music, but there are singable melodies, grooves, and a tonal center most of the time. The first track has echoes of Webern’s pointillism and compact form. The fifth track is a melancholy yet funky solo on a prepared mbira (I think), the preparation creating distortion that sounds almost like digital crunch, though he didn’t put any electronic effects on the album at all. It contrasts with the first track in its lack of movement as well, which is not at all to say that it isn’t affecting. The fourth track nods to hip-hop with prominent beatboxing and heavy rhythm, until it takes a sudden turn and becomes a prepared cello dirge. The sixth is a reassuring and stately piece played on what I’m guessing is pipa or nanyin pipa. The production doesn’t sound like it happened in the fanciest studio, but makes lots of use of stereo space and panning. If I were being picky I would say it’s a bit too much and too dramatic in that respect, though it certainly still adds more than it takes away. The one production element that does actually annoy me a little is that there aren’t any pauses between pieces. Sometimes it works, but on a disc with such varied material it would make more sense to have some space between.
All in all this album and this musician are certainly among the most interesting musical projects happening in China and perhaps among the best.
Here’s a link to a taobao store with the CD
And the ever useful taobao field guide for non-Chinese speakers.
Li Daiguo’s Myspace page