“I started playing guitar when I was in high school and had a band,” Chinese experimental musician Li Jianhong says in an email translated by his friend Miao Zhao. “We didn’t read music and had no clue about performance, since we were students in a fine art class. The experience was more like an escape from school and an outlet for our excessive hormones. I wanted to play like a guitar hero, but I hate practicing. My playing was horrible.”
In the late 1990s, as the internet became widely available in China, Li discovered experimental, noise, and improv music. He also incorporated traditional musical influences. He quickly became one of the most influential experimental musicians in the country, and one of the few with a real international profile. He was praised as “the best noise musician in China” by celebrated Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski.
Li’s performances can vary widely, but one can often hear the kid who wanted to be a kick-ass guitarist lurking there alongside the seasoned experimentalist and spiritual explorer. The massive 51-minute “San Sheng Shi” is an extended ecstatic quest—but it also sounds like a psychedelic rock guitarist trying and failing to grab hold of a riff. That’s also the case for the delightfully succinct “SaaBaa,” released on a split with Seattle’s Uneasy Chairs.
The name of Li’s 2012 album 1969, on Peru’s Buh Records, reads as a wry reference to his retro roots. The title track is a gloriously over-the-top indulgence in wah-wah feedback and effects—a pulsing, fragmented throb with swaggering solos rising out of the murk only to dissolve back into structureless bliss.
A track from Sub Jam’s 2012 Noise comp presents the two sides of Li’s musical personality in a more regimented setting. The composition starts with long, minimalist feedback microtones, suddenly overtaken halfway through by sprays of spiky notes, which are then disciplined into austerity again. It’s like Li can’t decide whether to be Steve Reich or Hendrix.
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Li is best known for his unaccompanied playing. “Solo performance is like experiences in another dimension,” he says. But he’s also recorded in collaborative settings. One of his earliest projects was the band D!O!D!O!D! with drummer Huang Jin. “It is a different experience from playing solo,” he says. “When I am collaborating, it feels more like we are driving a spaceship together, we need to stay solid but keep the communication, for a smooth ride.”
There’s nothing particularly smooth about the 2005 album Ghost Temple, though, which is a Ruins-esque exercise in spastic clatter. Li and Huang fire machine-gun bursts of shrieking and banging at one another, as if in a contest to see whose eardrums burst first.
Li’s collaboration with electronic artist VAVABOND (aka Wei Wei) in the band Vagus Nerve is a sharp contrast. Here he exchanges D!O!D!O!D!’s punk yowl for spaced-out ambient explorations. It’s not always easy to tell which drones are from the laptop and which are from the guitar, as the two artists push each other further and further out of the stratosphere.
Though these outer space explorations are standard for Li, his base of operations for many years was the city of Hangzhou. He recorded most of his work there before 2011, and he says that those records “contain a smell of the city… humid, hazy, and sensitive.”
That element is perhaps most clearly found on his three CDs of environmental improvisations recorded in 2008 and released on China’s CFI Music. On Twelve Moods, for example, Li moves around the guitar strings, plucking out gentle meandering notes and squeaks in response to, or next to, the rain you can hear falling in the background. The description sounds a little New Age-y, but Li’s performance is too spiky to be relaxing. Instead his performance is a sometimes amused, sometimes irritated, sometimes ecstatic conversation. Li rubs against nature, rather than blurring into it.
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As gigs began to dry up in Hangzhou, Li moved to Beijing in 2011. This year has been quiet for him since his wife gave birth to twins, but he’s hoping to do more live shows and perhaps release new music in 2019. What that music will sound like is anyone’s guess. But, one way or another, he’ll surely be displaying his own brand of guitar heroics.