Compact Disc (CD), , Vinyl LP
Mandarin Chinese is filled with ambiguities; slight variations in tone can yield completely different meanings for otherwise homophonic words. Translation, then, is an understandably tricky affair. And on their latest album 之 / OF, synesthetic sound artist Li Yilei attempts an even more difficult translation from poetry to music. Growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s, Li is familiar with the tenuous relationship between language and meaning. In this new record, they have crafted 12 ambient tracks to represent 12 poems associated with each hour, musing on the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on our understanding of time.
Each track title is a singular Chinese character and its English transliteration; but without context, deciphering their meaning is sometimes a challenge. Some are clear references to nature: the stark drones and samples of cresting waves in “HAI / 海“ recalls the sheer vastness of the sea. Others are more abstract: “CHU / 處” could refer to a place of residence, or a punishment to be meted out. The track’s warm analog synth sequences might suggest the former instead of the latter. Linguistics aside, the sonic language that Li works with on this record is lovely to the ear, wrangling field recordings, synthesizers, guqin, and violin to evoke a wide range of emotions. There’s a pensive mystique to the polyrhythmic synths and erratic clicks in “YUN / 暈”, an ominous foreboding to the dissonant percussion and vocal samples discussing “spiritual terrorism” in “YAN / 言” .
The album’s fragmentary titles are, in part, explained by a poem on its cover: “it is an unfinished tone, a broken sentence, a start and a whole.” On the bottom right in Chinese is “無休止”, which translates to “endless.” A cycle of 12 tracks as hours on a clock, “之 / OF” is a microcosm of the new normal and its attendant sounds and emotions.