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.