Yellow Buzz news!

Yellow Buzz is excited to announce some exciting news:

1. The article on Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower and her various activist art projects, recently published in RVA magazine, is recognized and posted on Ono's official website. : )

2. RVA magazine offered to synchronize Yellow Buzz with its web hub. I will post the details later.

Thanks for reading and supporting, everyone!


Melt Banana Blasts with Metrical Blasphemy

Melt Banana creates the ultimate form of music that keeps people on their feet and toes. A musical sleight of hand. Or a metrical blasphemy. Rhythmic and formal elements are constantly shifting. Jagged patterns of phrasing sound unexpectedly alternating between singing and screaming, jerked by tugging motion between vocals and guitar. I witnessed the Tokyo-based Japanese noise rock band at Satellite Ballroom on the University Corner, across the street from Thomas Jefferson’s historic university in Charlottesville, VA on 11/15/07. It was another unusually chilly night for November in central Virginia. The number of local Melt Banana lovers I expected turned out to be kind of meager, though quality of love exceeded its quantity. Bundled up with wintry apparel (and intense facial hair for some), dancing and nodding, the audience had a blast being pushed and pulled by Melt Banana's 8-settings-all-at-once rhythmic blender.

The Richmond-based Hex Machine opened for Melt Banana. Their set was dark, droney, and indeed heavy and rhythmically refreshing. Onuki Yasuko, the vocalist of Melt Banana, came onto stage with a stiff black spider stuffed animal. She positioned it on top of the left PA speaker. This didn’t seem puzzling to the audience. With no hesitance, the band plunged into an abyss of well-defined sonic chaos.

Short, fast tunes burst with sparkles and flames. Melt Banana bestowed upon audience with two hours of loving straight-ahead “Spas-Core.” The off-kilter vigor emanated from Yasuko’s noise-core screaming and Agata Ichirou’s virtuosic pedal stomping generated a well of euphoric intensity in the atmosphere. Each time Ichirou “talked” with his SG through his whammy pedal, I promised to myself to study his technique with a closer look. My attempt, unfortunately, didn’t yield much technical knowledge except for a few exciting snapshots of him in action. Ichirou’s impeccable sense of timing enlivened the whammy sound while turning it into a lo-fi sonic figure out of an 8-bit arcade machine. Drummer Uki Eiji and bassist Rika mm’, with her seriously head-banging-and-whirling, held the grounds by not simply providing the beat, but layering complex web-like rhythmic textures.

Chatting with my friend Scott of Hex Machine, I learned that all the members of Melt Banana were trying to outdo themselves from the previous night in Baltimore. Having seen one of the most exhilarating shows of the year, we went home and slept on remnants of ear treats.

more pictures


Article on Yoko Ono's Art Activism

My article "Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World" came out in the November issue of RVA magazine. The editor of the magazine wrote Ono and obtained from her some beautiful high-resolution images of the Imagine Peace Tower directly. Here's the link to download the original article in a pdf file. [The article is on pages 60, 61, 62, and 63].

Enjoy and let me know what you think!


The Magical Efficacy of Peelander-Z

Peelander-Z stormed in with their infectious fun-driven insanity at the Camel in Richmond, Virginia on November 7, 2007. Self-labeled as “Japanese action comic punk,” the New-York-based trio invigorated the socially sleepy downtown Richmond only a few blocks away from the iconic confederate hero Robert E Lee statue, one of the most visible structures in the city. Richmond’s cultural landscape may not be as dormant, regressive or even washed out as it seems above-ground. The presence of an anime punk band, to a large degree, resonates with the backdrop of Richmond as an East Coast hub of punk and hardcore that gave birth to GWAR. The aesthetic genealogy of Peelander-Z, to my knowledge, must have crossed that of GWAR somewhere along their outrageous ride of high-energy, raw sound and dramatic characterization.

“We are not American! We are not Japanese! We’re not even human! We are Peelander-Z!!!!” [All vocal gestures by Peelander-Z reverberated with exclamations.] Proclaiming to be of an anime-derived outer-space species, Peelander-Z wore power-ranger-like polyester suites and played through a series of tune-driven segments interwoven with interactive routines such as audience call and response and human bowling. Peelander-Z demonstrated the “claw” and the audience responded with their “claw” back during opening tune “Mad Tiger.” Peelander-Red then dragged out a suitcase full of pots, pans, and drumsticks while inviting the audience members to join the band by making percussive sounds. Human Bowling, as one would imagine, was one Peelander member bowling his band member across the hall and into a set of bowling pins. Throughout the set, the drummer held up signs to cue the audience into responding with particular phrases, gestures or actions.

The audience, comprised of mostly 20-or-30-something White Americans with punk-inflected apparel (tapered jeans and canvas Vans), got wild, dirty, and down with Peelander-Z. The women especially went nuts during the interactive breakdown sessions. I saw three girls in their early teens with their fathers, who had on autographed Peelander-Z Tshirts. Even the audience members most unfamiliar with the band felt connected to be participants.

Peelander-Z’s interactive techniques demonstrate an impeccable and unexpected synthesis between elements from punk, anime, and Japanese/Asian game shows (popular in East Asia. The premise of these show is for audience to interact with celebrity icons). There is something mysterious and almost ritualistic about Peelander-Z’s live shows. I shed all my skepticism and inhibition after their “Mad Tiger Claw” warmup. Their power of conjuring up immediacy, liveness, and interactivity is shamanistic – perhaps more efficacious than the folk evocation of personal sincerity and social intimacy.

How about a Kodak moment with Peelander-Z? [more images]


Boris, Michio Kurihara, and Damon & Naomi descended into the Virginian valley

Japanese sludge metal band Boris and Michio Kurihara from Japanese psychedelic folk rock band Ghost rumbled Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville on Thursday, October 25, 2007.

Hundreds of fans, indie music enthusiasts, metal-heads, punk kids, hipsters, and gen-x'ers crowded their stormed-drenched bodies into the Ballroom to witness Boris' ultra-live presence on stage. With a three-foot gong, countless effect stompboxes spilling out of pedal boards, stacks and stacks and stacks of amps, and dry ice (!!), Boris and Kurihara made the most godly sounds while descending in the valley of central Virginia. Kurihara's first guitar solo of the set, in "Rainbow," barged in like an alien with a desire to devour all of mundane earthliness, howling and growling. "Heavy", indeed, as described by many critics. What emptied me out was their generous outpour of unbridled melancholy mixed in with the uncanny.

In an email I wrote to a friend, I revealed my afterthought:

"i woke up this morning thinking that i just saw an otherworldly show last night. seriously, so many things about it made me feel like it was produced by superhumans - the drummer's choreographed taiko-like gestures, the nonchalant non-showman-like asskicking FEmale lead guitar, the double neck bass/guitar player who played out of two fucking stacks - and of course michio kurihara's virtuosic guitar effects and solos (man, his first solo took me to some sort of imaginary land with hendrix-like 'greatest guitarist of our time.')"

Boris in action

Boris drummer Atsuo - surfing

Damon & Naomi opened with a bittersweet set

one half of Kurihara's pedal board [more images of the show]

After the show I spoke with Naomi Yang of the acid-folk duo Damon & Naomi and the now-legendary indie-folk Galaxie 500. Naomi introduced me to International Sad Hits Volume 1: Altaic Language Group, an album featuring Asian singer-songwriters from the 1960s put out by Damon and herself. These artists, she explained, were discovered by them when they toured in Turkey, Korea, and Japan. I intend to review this album once I get a close listen of it. Damon & Naomi are on tour with Boris and Kurihara this fall.

I witnessed the gods of rock and roll channeling through Boris and Kurihara that night.


Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World: reprise

Upon Kenny's recommendation, I decided to extend my article on Yoko Ono's recent wave of her Imagine Peace campaign. The longer version will appear in the November issue of RVA Magazine, an independent arts and culture magazine based out of Richmond, VA. Here's a preview of the article:

On 10/9/07, John Lennon's birthday, Yoko Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland. Ono conceived of the concept for the Tower in 1965. At the time, John Lennon dreamed of having the light tower in his garden. Ono said, “maybe this is John’s garden.”

In the late 1960s, John & Yoko began the "Imagine Peace" campaign as a part of the anti-war effort against the US occupation of Vietnam. They utilized mass media, such as magazines, newspapers, billboards, and television, as a vehicle to spread pacifist messages to a wide audience. A famous project central to their campaign was the “Bed-in,” a series of two week-long press-conference-like performance art events in a hotel room first in Amsterdam and then in Montreal following their celebrity wedding, with the objective of turning the star-craving media attention upon themselves into a sit-in protesting against the Vietnam War. During the course of the week, John & Yoko spoke to celebrities, politicians, activists, world leaders, and joournalists who visited and phoned in to discuss issues related to war, violence, inequalities, pacifist strategies, media, etc. Dressed in all-white pajamas, they held protest signs and led sing-alongs with other musicians and artists.

To John & Yoko, world peace is a possibility only after a critical mass of people imagine it as a possibility first and then adopt it in their everyday lives. Yoko Ono, now 74 years old, has extended the John & Yoko anti-war agenda into the early 21st century political and technological context. The most recent form of the “Imagine Peace” campaign involves the implementation of her website [www.imaginepeace.com], a virtual hub serving to enlist people around the world to rehearse the idea of peace while enacting it by repeating the mantra of “imagine peace” in various ways in their daily lives. For example, she encourage to download from her site desktop graphics, website banners, and Myspace icons. Ono also has a Myspace and Facebook page. On the main page of the site, Ono keeps a log of news about her recent activist and art projects. The most recent post displays for Ono’s statement of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader currently imprisoned for her free-Burma resistance.

In addition, on her website, Ono has included an instructional page for her performance art piece “Wish Piece,” soliciting participants to create and display personally designed peace-ful messages to be exhibited on a tree. Ono has re-contextualized a Japanese traditional practice for the objective of world peace. This effort is joined by Ono’s “Wish Tree” gallery exhibits, from which she has collected peace wishes around the world. So far, she has collected a sum of 495,000 wishes.

The Imagine Peace Tower, a large, minimalist structured light beam, projected upward into the pitch-black sky of Reykjavik's night with solemnity and strength. The structure is comprised of a 55-foot platform that sits on a 6.5-foot tall wishing well, onto which is “imagine peace” inscribed in twenty-four languages. Ono plans to bury the peace wishes in “capsules” around the Imagine Peace Tower while planting a tree on top of each capsule. She envisions an eventual forest symbolizing the world’s collective wish for peace.

Sean Lennon and Ringo Starr partook of the celebration as Ono’s entourages. In a speech, Ono invoked the intent of the tower: “We are here together. Billions of us. Standing at the dawn of a new age determined to shift the axis of the world to health, peace and joy by loving and caring for all lives on Earth.” The presentation ended with her performance of “Onochord,” an interactive flashlight performance piece signaling the phrase “I love you.” Echoing the logic of many of her performance art pieces, the Imagine Peace Tower is not only a reflection of the artist’s vision. Moreover, it is a socially engaged imperative that ignites, sustains, and augments peace - as a mental state and practice – among the individuals in the world. Art, in this case, is not created for the sake of art only, but for a social cause.

Ono’s anti-violence activist agenda has been consistent in her art projects since her participation in the Fluxus movement in the late 1950s. In 1964, her performance of “Cut Piece,” a Fluxus performance-based work in which she kneeled on stage while instructing her audience to cut off pieces of her clothing. The compelling images of feminine fragility and body violence evoked in this piece, some thought, challenged the assumptions about the role and representation of women in contemporary society. Others interpreted “Cut Piece” to be a contestation against the Vietnam War.

Since then, Ono has participated in a number activist music projects. Her 1995 album Rising, a collaborative project with Sean Lennon’s art rock band IMA, voiced social concerns for HIV-positive individuals. To mobilize support for gay marriage she re-rendered a 1980 hit on Double Fantasy “Everyman Has a Woman Who Loves Him” into queer friendly versions – “Every Man has a Man Who Loves Him” and “Everywoman has a Woman Who Loves Her.” Furthermore, she played a crucial role in Amnesty International’s production of two compilation albums: first one is titled Wake Up Everybody, a post-911, politically charged album containing her re-make of “Give Peace a Chance”; second one titled Make Some Noise is an effort to raise global awareness on human rights crisis in Darfur.

Ono's production of peace hopefully speaks to an audience wider than ever before.
It’s been more than 40 years since the emergence of the fraught Beatles-related myth about Ono. My sense is that people are now starting to pay serious attention to her artistic and political contribution. Among the recent key advocates for Ono include Thurston Moore, Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper, Laurie Anderson, as well as cultural critic bell hooks.

I watched the unveiling ceremony broadcast on Icelandic TV that night. The spectacle exuded peace, serenity, warmth and social connectedness. When the children's choir sang Lennon’s “Imagine” in Icelandic, the brims of my eyes got a little moist. For over thirty years, Ono has not ceased for a moment to instill positivity into the world. “Negative thoughts are a luxury we can't afford,” Ono notes on her Website. Yoko Ono’s message of courage, pacifism, and love, I hope, will continue to reach and move more individuals in the world. To me, Ono-ism is pacifism in its most poetic and imperative form.


Noise in Asian America: C. Spencer Yeh

I saw C. Spencer Yeh, a Taiwanese-born improv violinist now based out of Cincinnati, at Gallery 5 in Richmond, VA last night. [The show organized by the HzCollective, of which I'm a member. ] With John Wiese, a LA-based artist, Yeh played a set of improv noise, a sonic assemblage of amplified violin, bows, hands, mouth, voice, feedback, contact mics, effect pedals, etc. It was thrilling to see Yeh and Wiese inventing live digital and analog sounds of varying textures and timbres. Some moments felt tactile and visceral, whereas other moments were almost static and elusive. Yeh is currently on a tour with John Wiese and Carlos Giffoni, both of which are well-known artists on the noise circuit.

C. Spenser Yeh is one of the members of Burning Star Core. The trio is comprised of Robert Beatty (acoustic apprasier & electronics), Mike Shiflet (computer, electronics, & voice), and C. Spencer Yeh (voice, violin, electronics, junkbox, & trumpet). Burning Star Core has reached a cult status within the scene by having a prolific career - having released countless recordings on various formats including cassettes, 7" vinyl records, and CD's. Since 2006, Yeh has collaborated with Wiese on a duo recording and performance project. Over the year, he has collaborated with Double Leopards, Comets on Fire, John Olson (of Wolf Eyes and Dead Machines), Hair Police, Thurston Moore's Dream/Aktion Unit, the Hototogisu, Pengo, Pete Nolan (of Magik Markers), Jessica Rylan, Larry Marotta, and many others. Yeh also runs the record label Drone Disco. Yeh's contribution to noise world thus far is undeniable.

After the show, I chatted with Spencer a bit about noise, improv, experimental music, and my project. Graciously he offered me a number points of contact. He regretfully indicated that others, in press and in person, have identified him by his race in both fetishistic and demeaning ways. We agreed on our sentiments of discomfort and disempowerment with regards to situations of race-oriented objectification. This conversation made me think about what then is race. Is it merely an others-imposed label? Could it be a product or process of self-identification? How is race different from racism? We've learned in school that race is a cultural construction. But what kind of construct is it? An ideology? A discursive product and trope? An instrumental category?

While these are the questions that guide my intellectual work, I have yet to figure out anything concrete and applicable in real life situations. I don't know. Sometimes I wish I could offer some solutions rather than raising more questions based on questions. My hope for an eventual applicable knowledge quietly drives forward my project.


Yoko Ono Imagines Peace with the World

Yesterday, on 10/9/07, John Lennon's birthday, Yoko Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik, Iceland.

John & Yoko began the "Imagine Peace" as a part of the anti-war effort against the US occupation of Vietnam in the late 1960s. They utilized mass media, such as magazines, newspapers, billboards, and television, as a convenient vehicle to spread pacifism to a wide audience. A famous project central to their campaign was the Bed-in, which John & Yoko conceived as two week-long press-conference-like performance art events in a hotel room in first in Amsterdam, then in Montreal following their celebrity wedding, with the objective of turning the star-craving media attention upon themselves into a sit-in protesting against the Vietnam War. During the course of the week, John & Yoko spoke to celebrity politicians, activists, world leaders who visited and phoned in to discuss issues related to war, violence, inequalities, pacifist strategies, media, etc. Dressed in all-white pajamas, they held protest signs and led sing-alongs with other musicians.

To John & Yoko, world peace is a possibility only after a critical mass of people first imagine it as a possibility and adopt it in their everyday lives. Yoko Ono, now 74 years old, has extended the John & Yoko anti-war agenda into the early 21st century political and technological context. The most recent form of the "Imagine Peace" campaign involves the implementation of her website, a virtual hub to enlist people around the world, via virtual communication, to rehearse the idea of peace by repeating the mantra of "imagine peace" in various ways in their daily lives. For example, there are desktop graphics, website banners, and Myspace icons that people can download to post as their signature Myspace photos. [Ono also has a Myspace.] In addition, on her website, Ono has included an instructional page for her performance art piece "Wish Piece", soliciting participants to create and display personally designed peace-ful messages on a tree, re-contextualizing a Japanese tradition for the objective of world peace.

Last night, the Imagine Peace Tower, a large, minimalist structured light beam, projected upward into the pitch black sky of Reykjavik's night with dignity and strength. I watched the unveiling ceremony broadcast on Icelandic TV last night. When the children's choir sang "Imagine" in Icelandish, the brims of my eyes got a little moist. The spectacle exuded peace, serenity, warmth and social connectedness. Sean Lennon and Ringo Starr were present to celebrate the occasion.

Ono's production of peace hopefully speaks to an audience wider than ever before. I hope so. My sense is that people are starting to be rid of the Beatles-related myth about Ono. Seriously, how much hatred tinted with sexism and racism could the Beatles-loving world have for a 74-year-old passionate artist and eloquent peace activist?

[Disclaimer: I've been busy with grant proposals lately. I will actually be occupied with proposal writing until early November. There will be a bit of slacking with my blog posting, which means that I will be posting about events in slightly less critical and analytical manner.]


Who's on tour: the have’s or the have-not's?

There is a theoretical caveat that I can take with my project on touring musicians. As media technology develops in late-capitalist society, some theorists argue that the experiences of everyday life become more mediated. This assessment seems too simplistic to me. Besides the increasing access to mediated cultural material, the circulation of music recordings via the Internet, for instance, what comes with technological development is people's mobility across geographical boundaries.

The politics implicated in mobility, however, should be qualified here a bit. Some movement patterns are induced by labor migration. Working-class migrant workers belong to this category where movement is voluntary only to an extent and is mostly based on economic necessities. On the other end of the power spectrum are people who move or travel out of leisure, i.e. tourists. In other words, motivation of movement or the social requisites for mobility are tied to the socioeconomic positions of the individuals.

Where do musicians fit in? Are musicians migrant (presumably working-class) workers, or are they more or less music-making tourists? According to my observations so far, many indie touring musicians fall somewhere in between. As the structure of the music industry becomes more conglomerated, there are fewer musicians out there signed to major labels. Thus fewer and fewer musicians have the funds provided by their labels to tour. In this sense, touring is no longer a means to sell records, the profit-driven end from the perspective of the record companies. Then what does touring mean to musicians who tour and subsist out of their own pockets, oftentimes the savings from a day job? Sometimes if you get lucky, and if you're popular enough, you barely break even from ticket and merchandise sales.

To musicians working at this level of the (amorphous) music industry, touring often means a personal aspiration, whether this serves the end of fulfilling the “rock star dream” or “getting my music heard by real people”, or making social network for fans and other musicians. I think, what compels musicians to get out there is precisely the personal, oftentimes intimate (especially if you’re really indie and low-budget) connections established in the live music setting.

I'm personally guilty of some of these motivations. And our Pinko Communoids tour of Taiwan this past summer was certainly not funded by a record label (our CDR was released by our own "label"). Our very costly trans-Pacific tour to East Asia was funded by student loans (another perk of being in grad school) and university funds, combined with the gracious financial assistance from our friends and families. [If you're curious, here's a list of people who made our trip possible, some of whom offered financial support while others emotional support.]

So - back to the beginning, music as heard in the postmodern, late-capitalist, Internet-mediated age is not just highly mediated and impersonal. Music can only be experienced in intimate, live music performances by indie-level musicians on tour. Sure, this dream is not lived out by everyone musician of all social positions. Not everyone can afford a tour around the world (living expenses) and being off from work.

The issue of class is looming though other forms of inequalities can intersect with socioeconomic positioning. Not everyone can feel safe on the road – as there are still lots of social spaces that are quite dangerous to gender (yes, this includes women, still!!), sexual and ethnic minorities. Trust me.


Elusive, yet slathering nostalgia for +/-

Usually I have a hard time listening to the studio recording of a band whose show I have just witnessed in action. This is totally not the case for the Brooklyn-based Plus/Minus {or alternatively represented by “+/-”}. +/- passed through Washington DC’s yet-to-be-gentrified northeast district last night on their mini-tour with Moools from Japan. The electro pop/rock band’s set at the Rock and Roll Hotel left me with an elusive yet slathering nostalgia.

+/- played a set of songs from their last two albums. What still linger in my head are their sophisticatedly crafted guitar feedback, a jagged reference of Cocteau Twin; their mechanistic “swing,” closer to a drum machine than a live jazz drummer; and their Gen-X earnesty, presented onstage and offstage. Noisey effects spread within a well-defined form. Precisely accented sixteenth-notes of the guitar and drums fall rather unexpectedly in moments of structured stasis. The acoustic, analog and digital ebbs and flows of +/-’s music make up a clever design balancing structure and freedom.

To a music geek like me, there is endless (and shameless) pleasure in counting the number of accents (e.g. crash cymbal strikes) in a sequence of similarly structured measures in +/- songs. Yet in counting, mirroring, or even measuring the beat, one could find a greater bliss of getting lost or letting go.

My friend and I found ourselves craving for engaging vocal gestures. And secretly, I wanted more metrical precision. Maybe the sparsely occupied black theater box absorbed some of the vocal sounds. Unfortunately, it was a slow night which, according to James and Patrick, is kind of a fluke considering their recent sold-out show at the venue. Despite that, +/- played a generous set in front of lovingly engaged audience members. As with many others in the room, I indulged myself by allowing my body to bounce between boldly contrasting dynamics, metrical breakdowns, and instrumental timbres. Between the push and pull, movement and stasis, we discovered a degree of subjective freedom subjecting ourselves in +/-’s no-more-no-less sonic envelope.

Maybe the late-summer Virginian haze or my general sleep deprivation is messing up my perceptual faculty responsible for the distinction between past and present, forward and backward. Voraciously I’m listening to all the +/- recordings available to me right now I write this document. Their recordings make me yearn for more live +/- action, vice versa. I still can’t quite put my fingers on what this means. What seems certain is that memories of a live +/- performance and the constant playback of their recordings make a cycle of dream, bliss, nostalgia.

Maybe the +/- sound is indicative of our time. My sentiments of nostalgia may be a near-obsession for the recently bygone time of the 1990s. As someone in her (really-)late-twenties, I pontificate about the meanings of this sound based on my evoked memories of youth associated with grunge and alternative rock. +/-'s musical ecology marks the beauty and transience of time.


HzCollective: call for musicians

It's been over a week since I've attended to the posting needs of Yellow Buzz. Frankly, I've been a little tied up with another blog that I'm creating and monitoring: hzcollective.blogspot.com.

This is a blog for the HzCollective, "a Virginia based experimental, noise & improvised music collective serving to strengthen the bond between the Richmond and Charlottesville creative arts communities. The collective fosters a local network of experimental artists and enthusiasts by organizing performances and workshops involving local and touring artists from around world."

This particular entry about the HzCollective isn't just an advertisement. I intend to use it to declare my duel identity as a blogger and an event organizer. As a member of the collective, I'm responsible for booking shows for experimentally-sounding and/or -minded musicians and artists.

:::::There has been no Asian American musical production within the realm of Hz activities so far. I would love to bring aurally and politically stimulating Asian and Asian American musicians to perform in Virginia. Please get in touch with me regarding details if you're interested: wendy.f.hsu [at] gmail.com



Afterthought on "Are You Japanese?"

Here’s a little bit of afterthought on the “Japanese” ethnic capital in experimental or improvised music scene in the US. [Caution – this entry is slightly inflammatory.]

There’s a distinction between being racialized as Asian/Japanese and being understood as being from Japan as a place from where many renowned improv or experimental musicians are from. (Some of these figures include Merzbow, Yoshimaru Nakamura, Otomo Oshihide, and those associated with John Zorn and his label. Here's a compiled list of some of these individuals.)

I should decompress this statement a bit. Being racialized implies an alignment with the historically Western Orientalist gaze on all people of non-Western features or otherwise known as “Eastern” or “Asian” affiliation. This perspective enables the lumping of all people of Asian descent into one large despite the ethnic, national, and class differences or sometimes conflicts among them. In the US, this perspective has much to do with the stereotype of “perpetual foreigner”, a cultural trope familiar to many of us living here. How many times have I been asked, “oh, where are you from?” If I said, “Virginia,” there would be another question that follows invariably, “but, no, which country are you REALLY from?”

In a slightly different way, being associated with the past and present internationally renowned Japanese musicians is not necessarily a racializing act. To some people, this could be a favorable or “positive” stereotype, although I do wonder how much mileage one gets from being associated with the particular line of Japanese artists. The issue of representation is a big deal in this day and age as movements toward equality seem to be motivated by multicuturalism. This doesn’t shun the possibility of tokenistic representation. After the implementation of Affirmative Action, the identity of Asian Americans conveniently slips in and out of the definition of “minority” depending on the context of representation. Asian Americans sometimes add a nice third color to the fortuitous representation of All-American racial harmony; other times, Asian Americans are called out for being “over-represented” (mostly because the Asian American presence simply overwhelms or even threatens the historically defaulted social dominance of Whiteness)

In real life, this distinction – between being racialized and being aligned with the renowned Japanese musicians - may be collapsed. On the part of the non-Asian observers, it doesn’t matter if the Asians or Asian Americans of ethnicities other than Japanese are grouped or lumped together. It’s not like the non-Asians can lose their social status by mistaking the national or ethnic association of a single individual, although there is the risk of breaching the implicit rules of social interactions and diplomacy, or just experiencing personal embarrassment.

On the other end, Asian/Asian American musicians can navigate the fine line between the two. There are a number of different approaches or strategies to this. Personally, I have a few different tricks in my bag depending on the situation. I sometimes handle the situation with a playful response. Other times, I put on my teacher’s hat that I patiently break down the historical, social, and cultural relationship between Japan and Taiwan. Well, occasionally I just ignore the questions. Most of time, I manage to make interesting small talks out of these inquiries about my “being from Japan” without breaching the rules of social interactions. However, I would rather talk about music, aesthetics, gear, etc, than my ethnicity. Maybe this particular experience can become a common ground for Asian/Asian Americans residing/working in the non-Asian world, despite our distinctive relationship to Japan and Japanese artists.

I would be interested in finding out how others manage this kind of encounter. Please get in touch with me [wendy.f.hsu@gmail.com] if you think you can contribute anecdotes or ideas to my rant/musing about ethnic (mis-)identification by strangers.


'Diversifying' Sonic Circuits 2007

My improv group Pinko Communoids performed a set in the Warehouse at Sonic Circuits, an international festival of experimental music in DC this past weekend. My presence at the festival seemed to mean something - in fact, a number of different things - to both the participants and the audience there.

First, "the obligatory": I was asked if I'm from Tokyo once again this weekend at Sonic Circuits. I didn't reply with anything clever as I had thought of the last time this happened (see blog entry about "Are You Japanese?" posted on August 7, 2007 and September 17, 2007).

Second, my presence seemed empowering for women, especially women of color. As I was standing around the set list for the evening (there were 9 artists/groups booked for the evening), a number of women came up to me. Anxious about the performance and its delay, my obsession over the evening's schedule probably projected the fact that I was performing that night. These women were exhilarated that I was a part of the bill and were psyched to watch my performance. Among them were a few women of (South and East) Asian descent.

"I'm so excited that there are so many women here! It's not just all White men.." as one woman exclaimed to me. It's true. For once, I felt like I didn't stick out.

All of them made a point to share their excitement for the diversity among the performers and audience at the festival. To my knowledge, I was the only woman of color on the bill. But this definitely meant something (perhaps tremendous) to these women of color festival goers. We exchanged some small talk and even some contact information hoping to establish a social connection via our passion and participation in experimental arts.

Jeff, the festival organizer, indicated to me that diversity is one of his aims for the events. His awareness of bringing people of different walks together in the name of experimental music successfully manifest in थिस former-warehouse-now-gallery-space appropriately (perhaps ironically) named as the Warehouse. His intention even is reflected on the promo material made for the event. There are more women (all of whom are of Asian descent interestingly) than the over-represented White men on the poster.

Yet, story of diversity can be more complicated than representation. Despite the Warehouse being only 3 blocks away from Chinatown in DC, the artsy crowd didn't seem to intersect with Chinatown in more ways than consumption, ie. dinner at either one of the more historic Cantonese-owned restaurants or the faddish Asian fusion eateries there.

We are a little guilty of this division, of course. On our way to Chinatown for a quick bite, we ran into an African American man wearing a shirt that said "I make beats that break the house." He's a rapper. One of the sound engineers at the festival was trying to convince him to come to the show. He seemed amiable to the invitation. But his appearance would take more than just an invitation, I think. With the ticket price of $15 and the obscure nature of most of the music presented, the festival could not have seemed all that attractive to him. Certainly, this invitation didn't extend out to the residents of DC's Chinatown or downtown near-gentrified neighborhood. The Warehouse is technically out of commission because it simply can't afford the taxes involved in running the space.

Diversity takes shape in various forms depending on the social context and the social agents involved. It's not like my color of my skin and hair and my gender (distracted or enhanced by my near-punk haircut and checkered canvas Vans, a style I adopted from the hardcore/punk/alternative scene in RVA) directly translates into a token for Asian woman representation, although it can work that way in certain situations. In any case, it meant something to people - but the precise meaning of diversity projected by my being there is subject to the individuals' respective social position.

The truth is that inequality goes way beyond the issue of representation. The artists, performers, festival organizers and goers are more or less transient beings in this space. These people have the mobility of transcending spatial boundaries - particularly those invited artists from Europe - while occupying spaces with the prestige of or affiliation to "art". Already, the mobility associated with artistic identity or occupation surpasses the immobility or forced mobility of migrant workers or lower class urban dwellers whose spatial occupation is bound to work and not leisure. Right here - local gentrification and international avant-garde tours present a jarring effect in the local landscape of downtown DC around Chinatown in the post-industrial time, a time and space fraught with the South-of-the Border immigration polemic, economic issues related to transnational capital flows and multinational corporation, and international warfare.

Yet another twist: I'm not sure how much we as experimental improv musicians who travel and perform under the name of Pinko Communoids can do about the world's inequalities and violence. I guess we've done relatively well in representing in ways that defy the White-masculine norms of experimental music while sonically propagating the affect of peace and love through our restrained, non-violent 'noise', but I hope that there's more than just that. Any ideas?

[photos by Chia-chi Charlie Chang and Kevin Hsu]


Tomie Hahn's new book moves with conviction

I just wrote a review of Tomie Hahn's new book Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. It should come out in Women and Music, a journal that explores issues of gender, music and culture, next year. Here's what I've come up with:

After the recent release of Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Memoirs of a Geisha, Björk’s Homogenic, and a series of music videos by Madonna, Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, and Christina Milian, the kimono-clad Asian woman figure has become one of the icons of Asian chic in pop America. With the 19th century French fad of Japanese art and culture known as Japonisme in our nearly remote hindsight, the exoticized and eroticized body of Japanese women is certainly not a new trope in Europe and North America. One wonders what cultural impact this Western fascination with the Asian/Japanese female body has on women who practice traditional arts in Japan.

Tomie Hahn’s ethnography Sensational Knowledge: Embody Culture Through Japanese Dance provides a powerful dissonance to the widely circulated objectifying images of Japanese women. In the introduction, Hahn invokes her subversive impulse to “reappropriate the exotic mystique of the ‘fan dance’ stereotype of the demure ‘Oriental lady’ who entices the onlookers’ gaze by revealing and concealing her body… to reappropriate the fan, kimono, and hair ornaments to tell a very different story of Japanese performing women” (14-5).

Hahn’s monograph on the embodied transmission process of Japanese dance (nihon buyo)—narrating while analyzing the author’s fieldwork and experiences of learning the dance for over thirty years—is rhetorically captivating and intellectually nuanced. Hahn draws methodological and theoretical ideas from a number of disciplines including “ethnomusicology, dance studies, anthropology, performance studies, and Asian philosophies of the body” (2). As Hahn indicates, the book’s organization poetically corresponds to the unfolding movement of a sensu, a paper fan supported by a bamboo backbone, often used in nihon buyo. The first chapter introduces reflexive ethnographic methods and the framework of cultural transmission with a focus on body knowledge and multisensory experience. The second chapter narrates the recent social history and structure of the practice of traditional Japanese dance. Chapter three elucidates the relevant concepts and aesthetic principles of Japanese arts. Chapter four details the transmission process with a substantial section devoted to discussing each of the senses involved. The last chapter explores issues of codeswitching, identity formation and articulation, and cultural transformation involved in the embodiment practices of fieldwork and performances.

Hahn locates her body as a deposit of her field experience. The field site is conceived as a broad landscape, at the center of which is her own body, and from which extend other important social actors such as her teachers and colleagues and the audience of her performance. This frame of knowledge appears and disappears, depending on how her body engages with the history of the dance and the memories of her dance teachers (xiv). Echoing recent feminist dance and performance scholarship, Sensational Knowledge’s emphasis on the body as a key epistemological locus diffuses the historical mind-over-body baggage in Western scholarship. Hahn’s adherence to the cultural specificity of the Japanese traditional practice and principles—specifically, the interdependence of mind and body, theory and practice—illuminates her implicit critique of the masculinist Western Cartesian split.

Sensational Knowledge encounters the challenging task of translating movement into text head-on with keen details and descriptive specificity written in elegant prose. “I crave specificity and a semblance of physical presence in dance scholarship. Limbs. Breath. Shoulders. Muscles. Gaze” (6). Inspired by the dance writing by Barbara Browning and other dance ethnologists since the mid-1980s, the moving (physically and affectively) quality of Hahn’s prose achieves kinesthetic sensation and empathy experienced by the reader. In Hahn’s writing, dance is not just composed of movements and techniques but is a stream of sensations, experiences, meanings, and emotions.

Hahn follows feminist ethnographers Lila Abu-Lughod, Ruth Behar and Michelle Kisliuk to write with vulnerability and reflexivity. Rather than passive, non-participatory, quantifiable and objectifying observations, Hahn foregrounds social relationships, revolving around her relationship with her teachers. Her framework and analysis are informed by the poststructuralist and feminist critical requisite of elucidating authorial positionality. In relevant ways, Hahn explicitly exposes her identity and authorship allowing her reader to position her/himself in relation to her point of view to navigate through the passages. The specificity of Hahn’s social position(s) within her research field sheds light on “the complex process of comprehending the relationship of self to other, and the embodied knowledge of the participant-observer-research, as a resource within the research” (10).

Dance, expression, and embodiment are all multisensory experiences. To analyze the transmission process of nihon buyo, Hahn first sets the scene by providing a multisensory account of physical and social structure of her dance school in Tokyo, Japan and then she launches a detailed analysis of the embodied learning of the dance. Here she organizes her close reading of the dance practice by sense: visual, tactile, and oral/aural.

Hahn recognizes the recent incorporation of video technology and media in nihon buyo pedagogy, as she self-consciously incorporates it in her field research and ethnographic representation. The ability to rewind and watch the video in slow motion allows a close-up access to the subtlety of transmission process and the embodied practice of dance. “Curiously, kinesthetic sensations (the sense of motion and orientation) often fell over me when I observed the videotapes, and some guided me through the analysis. It seemed that the videotapes were reinforcing my physical understanding of movement/sound while my body also informed the analytical process”(78). Hahn’s convincing argument that video (and other forms of media such as dance notations) can be consumed in holistic and kinesthetic ways has a feminist implication. Hahn’s intimate implementation of video technology and media in her body-centered study implicitly provides a rupture in the historical Western gendered dichotomy between the feminized body/nature and the masculinized machine/technology.

The account of gender, however, is not central in Sensational Knowledge, as noted in the introduction. Hahn is concerned more with gendered embodiment than with gendered meanings. Furthermore, she is not interested in producing a narrative that risks reinscribing the age-old Orientalist prototypes of sexualized Asian female body. Instead, she aims to carve out a legitimate discursive space for Japanese women dancers to assert their agency through the practice of nihon buyo in their contemporary lives. The issue of embodying stylized stereotypes in Japanese dance is contentious. Hahn argues against the assumption that these women merely reinscribe or are confined to stereotypical images of themselves and thus reinforce male domination in their society. She asserts that “the metaphoric shifting present in nihon buyo choreography empowers women through the transformative, shared, embodied experience of multiple identities as well as flexible notions of self, within a society that has historically restricted their expression” (162). Hahn’s conception of codeswitching, a performance or shifting of identity in creative and everyday life, is a product and means of survival. It would be theoretically fruitful to juxtapose this idea with Judith Butler’s concept of gender as performance. What seems lacking in Butler’s interpretation about drag performances, to me, is a convincing account of the role of self knowledge and reflection. In nihon buyo, the process of codeswitching as a practice of transforming into an Other requires “a clear knowing and establishing of self” (162).

Hahn makes a few explicit observations about gender, commenting on the recent transition from male-headed school to female-headed school and the fact that most nihon buyo practitioners have been women. In a close reading, Hahn notes that a man feels awkward or “verdant” in his dancing attire whereas females dancers feel quite at home with the fashion and movement of the practice (92). Confronting these observations, I wonder if the feminine connotations of nihon buyo produce anxiety for (heterosexual) men practitioners. We’ve learned from Hahn that women practitioners seek liberating moments in the dance form apart from their everyday life. But how do men relate to the traditional dance form? Is there any linkage among the gendered movements, the gendered relations within the group, and the gendered identity of the participants? How has the gendered dynamic within nihon buyo social system changed over time? What role does the gendered dichotomy between modernity and tradition play in the contemporary practice of traditional Japanese dance? This line of inquiry can be examined in light of the postcolonial feminist critiques that have investigated the oppressive feminization of non-Western and “traditional” practices and values in contemporary postcolonial, transnational settings.

Sensational Knowledge reveals its politics and ethics when Hahn narrates her embodied experiences of being biracial in her performing and everyday life. Multiracial individuals have to negotiate the boundaries of ethnic, national and racial construction not only in performance situations, but also in their daily lives. Their everyday lives become a performance or a display of an interruption of cultural and ethnic lineage. Not only that, mixed raced individuals represent the threat of miscegenation and ethnic and racial impurity (169-70). In her reflexive and persuasive examination of the ideology of race, ethnicity and nationality, Hahn’s theoretical parallel between performance and everyday life deconstructs the biologistic definitions of the body. She takes seriously the body as a site of accumulation, transmission, and transformation of cultural knowledge, ideals and ideology, and as a potentially triumphant location of human agency. Embodiment is a meeting ground between social structure and human agency.

In Sensational Knowledge, passages flow; pages turn; concepts resonate. Reading and interacting with it, my mind is engaged and my body touched. Hahn’s monograph on Japanese dance positively illuminates the relationship between the flow of cultural knowledge and the body; it also demonstrates the possibility of coalescing text and performance, mind and body, theory and practice, and research and ethics.


Buzzing in NYC, part II: Each Other's Mothers

Kathi Killer invited me to an Each Other’s Mothers show at the Charleston in Williamsburg on Saturday, August 11, 2007. In Brooklyn, my friend and I navigated through blocks of bleak de-industrial structures. Eventually we found Williamsburg, a recently gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn, tucked in a nice, “quaint” neighborhood where a group of folks in their 20s to 30s leisurely congregated for nightlife afforded by the local artsy hipster scene.

A near-hole-in-a-wall place, there were lots of beers and pizzas amidst a friendly crowd at the Charleston. Each Other’s Mothers came on at around 11:45PM. The band began with a song that flaunts a Deerhoof-inflected guitar riff - it’s sweet like “Wrong Time Capsule”. In most songs, Kathi and Rachel alternated between two dissonant riffs on their guitars, sometimes a third apart from one another, other times unevenly dis-harmonizing each other. Angie played solid and complex bass lines while Allison zealously put accents in unexpected spots. No simple power chords, just cleverly composed songs with original melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

Kathi described Each Other’s Mothers’ music to be “instrumental math-punk with some dance rock.” What I heard was refreshing indie-punk sound influenced by Deerhoof (rather blatantly), Franz Ferdinand (my feet danced!), Blonde Redhead (bold dissonance), and Sonic Youth (droney, creamy effects). No bullshitting around. They occupied significant physical and sonic space. The boys and girls in the crowd went nuts for their generous motherly love and pleasure. [Live recording available here.]

Each Other’s Mothers hit the musical sweet spot for me, balancing between rock music conventions and un-conventions. If the planet of punk/rock music is colonized by white men, Each Other’s Mothers has de-colonized a good part of it by rocking out with their serious edgy musical intelligence.


Buzzing in NYC, part I: Hsu-nami

I’ve been hanging out in New York for the last several days – meeting and chatting with musicians, checking out shows.

On Friday night (8/10), I saw Hsu-nami at Desmond's Tavern an Irish pub in midtown Manhattan. The Hsu-nami is a rock band based out of New Jersey. On their Myspace, they self-identify as "experimental/progressive/other". To my ear, the band plays a variety of rock sub-styles including metal, psychedelic, prog rock, and even funk. In place of the lead vocal and guitar, there is an amplified erhu, a bowed two-string instrument often used in Chinese classical and folk ensembles. Jack Hsu is the erhu/violin player of the group. He fronts the band with impressive high-energy fast fingering and bowing on the erhu. The erhu is usually played seated; however, Jack plays it standing, almost like a rock guitar. His active body movement occupied the centerstage while accentuating the hyper sonic projection of the Hsu-nami.

Jack Hsu's rock erhu in Hsu-nami has self-consciously displayed the aesthetic tension between the electric modernity of Anglo-American popular music and the traditional organicity of a Chinese classical/folk instrument. The audience seemed impressed by Jack's newly defined rock erhu virtuosity - it cries like a glam rock vocalist at times and shreds like a metal guitar at other times; every now and then, it sings a Chinese folk ballad. Jack Hsu's innovative style of playing and techniques have managed to transform the erhu into a legitimate rock musical instrument. This kind of musical-cultural negotiation is no easy task, if you asked me.


"Are you Japanese?"

I was at a show tonight. A guy came up to me and my friend Kenny. He seemed curious about all the noisemaking that Kenny and I have been engaged with in our respective projects. He claims that he has me on his videotape. It was a performance of my band at a local theater space back in February. I felt flattered that he remembers our set. This moment of mini-glory lasted until he said, "are you Japanese?"

I floundered around for a clever answer thinking: I'm too tired so I will let this one go. "No, I'm Taiwanese," my rhetorically weak and un-subversive reply prevailed.

Thinking back now, I could've said a million "good" answers such as:

"No, are you?"; "No, but the other members in my group are both Japanese women" (which is untrue); "Do I look Japanese to you?"; or, "No, why do you ask?"

Why Japanese? Why not Filipino or Korean? He wanted to know if I am in any way connected to the Japanese (women) musicians on John Zorn's label Tzadik. (He is unaware that there are quite a few non-Japanese Asian artists on Tzadik.)

Frankly, I wish that I am in some way connected to these innovating Japanese artists. But - ethnicity (neither is gender!) is not the only kind of connection that "all we Asians" have in the US, I would hope. Otherwise ethnicity slips into the objectifying and essentializing trap of race. We are merely aliens who make exotic noises to be consumed by those of avant-garde or cutting edge taste.


Alan Aranas and Brian Le visit class

Last Tuesday, we had the honor of having two Asian American musicians - Brian Le and Alan Aranas - in my class MUSI208D Music in Asian America. Brian is a Vietnamese American hip hop dancer, choreographer and R&B singer; Alan is a Filipino American composer, songwriter, and studio producer (he's the head of NonStop Access Studio). Both Brian and Alan are based out of the metropolitan area of Washington, DC. They have been collaborating for years under the name of Trak N Feel. The premise of their presentations was to relate their career, its present state and history, to their cultural background and ethnic identity. No doubt, the students ate it all up.

A few highlights of the day include Alan's presentations of his scores for video games Robota and Vampire, Brian's hip hop dancer demo and instructions, Alan's live piano performance of one of his songs, and Brian's interactive workshop on issues of representation in the US music industry.

Alan is indeed a music professional. His high-level compositions and songs display convincing statements about his passion for music and professional training. To reconnect with Alan via this opportunity is utmost pleasant. [Alan and I were undergrad classmates at VCU in the late 90s].

I was particularly impressed by Brian's ability to interact with the students in a personal, experiential way. He posed a series of thought-provoking questions that enabled the students to intellectually engage with Brian's concerns and issues regarding the racialized music industry in the US. Later I asked him to consider teaching. He shrugged with modesty and indicated that he's only had teaching experiences in the context of dance instructions. Brian's passion is infectious.

To find out more about Brian, check out Charlene Brown's interview of Brian Le.


Asian-American or Asian-Transnational?

I've lost track of how long I've been browsing the web half-aimlessly. Perfect activity on a Saturday afternoon assaulted by 100-plus-degree heat. I'm looking for music events while planning for my research trip to New York next week. Myspace seems to be logical place to start as it highlights the local affiliations of musicians and music events.

This presents an curious encountering of an online-offline contradiction: regardless of how "virtual" the Internet environment is, people use this virtual social space to construct a sense of local belonging or ties. Not only that, while musicians have a permanent tie to a physical home base, many of them have a transient status of being "on tour" in regions of the US or the world.

I've noticed a particular pattern: many Asian American musicians, particularly those who perform in the format of an indie or rock band, are touring or have recently toured Asia. For instance, Asobi Seksu, a Brooklyn-based indie rock band fronted by Japanese American Yuki Chikudate, just finished their tour dates in Japan and Taiwan (last performance at Formoz Festival in Taiwan) in late July. Also, Johnny Hi-Fi, Taiwanese-American Eric Hsu's Britpop-inspired indie band based out of New York, toured Taiwan, China, and Japan last September and are about to release a bilingual (English-Mandarin) album.

This makes me wonder if Asian American musicians could mobilize their Asian social connections or capital better than those non-Asian Americans. How much of the "Asian tour" has something to do with the personal connections that Asian American musicians have themselves, how much of it has to do with the ethnicity factor? Can ethnicity be translated into a form of social capital?

My speculation is not meant to discount the successful reception of American bands with Asian American members in Asia by all means. I'm sure that there are other reasons (such as a musical compatibility) for Asian listeners to dig music by Asian Americans. (Could this be the reason that Johnny Hi-Fi's "Familiar Voices Pres..." reminds me of Taiwanese indie sound?)

My recent experiences of touring Taiwan with my band (Pinko Communoids) made me realize that without my personal connections to Taiwan, our dream of an "Asian tour" would be halted by a slew of logistical difficulties. Perhaps, with unsigned groups, the possibility of touring Asia would be augmented when a member of the group has some sort of personal or cultural connections to the country. The ability to speak the language and having distant relatives in other countries on a tour could facilitate the international communication and travel arrangement. Believe me, even with that, we still were warped into the alienating universe portrayed in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Perhaps this is the kind of social contact that allows the identity of Asian-American and Asian-transnational to mutually reinforce each other.

If this is the case, why not? It's not like Asians or Asian Americans dominate the music industry in either the US or the world.


last day of class in Music in Asian America

I've been teaching an undergrad summer course Music in Asian America. Today was our last day of class. The students presented their analysis of songs by Asian Dub Foundation ("Debris" and "Change") and M.I.A. ("Pull up the People"). It's fascinating how well students respond to Internet media and pop culture. They interpreted the songs with great details and related the content of the songs to artist's biography. Most of all, I'm happy to introduce them to globally oriented progressive sounds.

My friend I-Jen Fang, who is on the performance faculty here at UVa, came in and gave an informative multimedia presentation of her career. Foregrounding her Asian affiliations, I-Jen narrated moments in her performance career where her ethnicity has been highlighted. We found that that I-Jen was chosen to be (as a token of internationalism) on Mr. Rogers when she was in college! Also she discussed the glass ceiling effect experienced by performers of Asian ethnicity in the US.

It's crucial to consider the practitioners' perspective when commenting cultural production. Thanks for coming to our class, I-Jen!


hello. hello.

Hello, everyone.

Please indulge me in reading what I have to say about my work, my life and my music. I promise that this blog documents most of my thoughts, some of my actions, and few of my emotional strands. As of now, my life is guided by my to-be-realized academic career. This blog will archive my process of dissertate-ing hopefully with some stimulating or entertaining details.