Q&A with Jing-Adel Wang

In this regular Q&A series, we interview authors and major figures in the field about their work, interests, and overall thoughts on sound studies.

Based in Hangzhou, China, Jing-Adel Wang is a sound studies scholar, art anthropologist, curator and practitioner in sound art. She is currently an Associate Professor of sound studies at Zhejiang University, China. She was a Visiting Professor at MIT anthropology, USA, (2019-2020) a visiting scholar at School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong (2017.2). She is also the founder of the Sound Lab at College and Media and International Culture at Zhejiang University (2015-present). Academically, she is the author of the book Half Sound, Half Philosophy: Aesthetics, Politics, and History of China‘s Sound Art (Bloomsbury, 2021) (in English) and Sound and Affect: An Anthropology of China’s sound practice (2017) (in Chinese). Artistically, she works with field-recordings, voice and installation-based performance. She considers research and art practice not as separate but as in reciprocal relation in producing concepts for thought and affects for co-presence.

What are you working on right now?

In the summer of 2021, I did a live performance titled “Voices Within” at Changjiang Art Museum in the city of Taiyuan. During that time, I was at the initial stage of a research on inner voice in relation to space and different kinds of religious practices. The research process was slow. When a performance opportunity came up, I felt it was a nice chance to change modes of thought. A performance may open unexpected routes for thoughts. In the performance, within a completely dark space, I used a lit candle as the “amplifier” and “instrument” to which I read a text I wrote speculating on praying. The rhythm of the jumping flame materialized the breath of my reading. A video projector was used to create an infinite mirror effect, an echo of the dancing flame. I hoped to create an oneiric atmosphere that was somatic, vague and elusive. I chose not to use loudspeakers to experiment if the unamplified and the least mediated voice can increase the intensity of concentration of the audience and to intrigue the audience to develop their own inner voices during the performance.

Currently, with the support of Pro Helvetica Swiss Art Council, I continue developing this project on inner voice. I am working on an audio art piece and at the same time writing about inner voice and its relation to interior and exterior acoustic architecture.

I am also co-curating an exhibition in Beijing, “A Thirty Years Retrospective of Sound in China’s Contemporary Art.” The exhibition intends to create and present an inclusive archive of Chinese contemporary art practices that use sound as its primary art medium.

What got you interested in the field of sound studies?

I have always been interested in music and philosophy. When I was a second-year doctoral student in communication studies, I came across a video of a live collective improvising performance by the Japanese Butoh dancer Min Tanaka and the British free improving guitarist Derek Bailey. Everything about that performance was strange to me at the time, its dance, music, the outdoor setting and even the crowd that gathered around. I was however so deeply attracted. Of course, I didn’t know by then what free improvising or Butoh dance were. It was early 2007. It was also the time when I began to think about my dissertation proposal. I hoped to work on music, art (the kind like Butoh and free improvising) and community. During the summer of 2008, I went back to China to do a pilot fieldwork in Shanghai and Beijing to look for a potential research subject. It was a serendipity when I came across an interesting group of free improvisers and experimental musicians in Beijing. To get more support for my research into the arts, I reapplied to study in a PhD program called Interdisciplinary Arts to further develop my research into China’s experimental and improvising music scene. That’s how I entered the field.

What do you write about?

I write about sound art, experimental music, improvising music in China, particularly how its practice gives rise to a subculture with values that form a contrast with the dominant form of life in contemporary China, and how its aesthetics takes resources both from the ancient Chinese culture and from contemporary sound art and experimental music practices from primarily European and North American countries.

In my recent book Half Sound, Half Philosophy, I theorize sound through ancient Chinese philosophy, that is, to understand sound through the philosophy and cosmology of qi (气). The philosophy of sound-as-qi attempts to circumvent the binaries of form-matter, nature-culture. Sound is a result of and a manifestation of resonating qi. It is one of the primary goals of qi-philosophy to unveil the capacity of resonance among things to enhance creativity and to restore reverence for transformation, mutation and resonance. Through sound-as-qi, a set of aesthetic concepts informed by qi-philosophy can be used to understand sound practices from China and beyond, that is, Shanshui (mountain-water, that considers nature and environment as secret and nurturing), huanghu (a shamanistic sensibility and Daoist ontology that resonate with the bland, old, deserted and noisy) and immanent control (being attentive to not only the nowness but also the past, the future, the peripheral and the subliminal).

I try to understand how sound and listening shapes the ways people think, create and exist, alone and together.

Who in this field inspires you?

There are so many along the way, including Don Ihde, Jonathan Sterne, Steven Feld, Brandon LaBelle, Salomé Voegelin, Christoph Cox, Veit Erlmann, Stefan Helmreich, Marina Peterson. Their perspectives, writings styles and insights have helped to form my own in different ways. As to artists, Alvin Lucier’s music practices have always been inspirational for me. More recently, Christine Sum Kim’s sound art works open my ears and eyes to the sensorial world of deaf and hard of hearing people. Also, Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Peili’s sound installations often remind me that even the most personal, mundane and trivial sounds have an anti-monumental potential.

What is a misconception about sound or sound studies that bothers you?

There seems to be a tendency to claim a universal philosophical definition of sound. Right now, the major frameworks or philosophies of sound derive more from sociocultural-intellectual milieus of the global North. Most sound practices are filtered through these frameworks. It really bothers me. This is one of the primary reasons why I push for a reinterpretation of sound and listening through a philosophy of qi which derives from Chinese cosmology. The intention is not to replace one with another. I hope to show that any philosophical system needs to work within particular historical, cultural and intellectual contexts. That is, every philosophical system has its limitations and advantages, including qi-philosophy.

When it comes to sound art, there still exists this misconception that an art piece has to make certain sounds or use a sound-related technology to be sound art. Sound art is much broader than that. It can be a work working under an acoustic way of thinking, or a work that evokes a listening experience or acoustic imagination.

If you could tell your non-sound studies colleagues, friends, or family something about your work in just one sentence, what would it be?

I try to understand how sound and listening shapes the ways people think, create and exist, alone and together.

As someone who studies sound, what are your thoughts on listening?

To listen is to resonate with. Listening is not a sensation privileged to only hearing people, but intrinsic to wanwu, to use a classical Chinese expression, which means myriad things (including human beings).

What is a book that you don’t want to write about but really want to read?

I would like to read a book about conceptions of sound rooted in Japanese philosophy, and about more historical and analytical details of Japanese sound art and experimental music. Before the pandemic, there were relatively intense (official and grassroots) exchange projects between Chinese and Japanese musicians and artists. With the language barrier, my exchanges with Japanese musicians and artists are often limited. I have learnt a lot about noise music from Japan in David Novak’s book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation. Hopefully there are more coming out.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) sounds?

It really depends on events and situations, but I always enjoy the sound of cicadas.

Publications with Bloomsbury:
Half Sound, Half Philosophy: Aesthetics, Politics, and History of China‘s Sound Art (Bloomsbury, 2021)


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