Making Sonic Bed Shanghai

by Kaffe Matthews.2006

(Commissioned by the British Council for Sound and the City, Shanghai, 2006)

I’ve long been interested in the physical experience of music and have made two sonic armchairs which combine the vibrational sensations of music perception with aural to make new compositions. These chairs, with speakers immersed under their upholstery, create situations that transform the listening experience for the sitter, turning ‘weird’ or ‘boring’ music into something meaningful. People will queue for hours, have a completely different experience, love it and talk of the musical as well as physical and psychological experiences they have had afterwards. km.1997.

Monday December 5th 2005.

I am in China. I had a passion about coming here 20 years ago, forgot about it, then suddenly out of the blue I am invited, manage to squeeze the booking into a tight schedule and all too quickly have landed. Pudong airport, Shanghai.

The first thing that strikes me queuing to come in is the melody of the woman’s soft voice slowly and deliberately announcing things to do with planes I guess, the words popping and jumping in ways that English words just don’t. I realize that even though I have worked with Cantonese speakers, Chinese or rather Mandarin is a language I’ve only ever heard on movies like “Raise the red lantern” and so immediately picture the moving mouth of that beautiful athletic actress who now seems to be in all the blockbuster Chinese movies. Queuing is slow as only 4 booths are open and 6 flights or so have suddenly landed. At random moments another booth opens, and the hall is filled with the sound of shuffling, rushing feet to front the next line.

Driving down town I am surprised. Shanghai reminds me of Northern India. I was expecting glorious shining 22nd century architecture with gleaming skyscrapers and evidence of cutting edge technological lifestyles everywhere. Sure the skyline is impressive, and yes blocks are stunningly high and angular, but on the street I see small simple shops, little food booths, people on bicycles often laden with bundles of things or baskets, most black headed, many poor, with cramped steaming dumpling shops nested in amongst the KFC’s and Starbucks and 5 star hotels and efficient looking men and women in suits with cell phones. No one is hanging out on the street corner with nothing to do that’s for sure, and somehow there’s a darkness in the light; yes, that’s why I remember Delhi; are we on the same latitude?

I am here to research making a new sound work for Sound and the City and initially am offered only a week to come up with a proposal. Meeting my desire to meet ”normal” people and “daily life outside the hustle and glamour of this bustling modern economy with a nightlife”, Bonny at the British Council has packed a tight schedule of visits and meetings with groups of older people singing Shanghainese opera, an old erhu player, tea and karaoke in someone’s tiny flat, a girls String orchestra, local electronic musicians, middle aged white Americans playing contemporary percussion music in a huge formal concert where the mixed audience happily munch on home cooked paper bags of pop corn, answer their phones and snore or chat loudly when things get tedious. Of course there are the outdoor trips too to the Bund and the Huangpu river and then on the ferry with fat vibrating engines to Pudong and its astonishing Alphaville type architecture where men and women work with hand tools amongst the cranes and we leave the perfect beep of the pedestrian lights and the swish of the brooms and the pad-pad of the soft-soled shoes to glide up 80 floors in a soundless lift to gaze across the city almost silent from a hushed carpeted espresso bar. I have to dip out of the trip to the water market, going pearl shopping, fashion gazing, and generally absorbing the streets and the shikumen instead. Oh give me time to walk, absorb and hear this place!

Of course too there is all the eating that has to get done. The shared bubbling hot pots and sizzling dishes and noodles and dry hot hot tastes from Hunan province and exquisite contemporary Shanghainese or Taiwanese dining, luxury or worker style where the tastes and always so fresh ingredients satisfy so well in either place. Yes, really all that is different is the bum comfort and of course the noise. Contemporary gastro eating pipes gay Shanghainese songs from the 50’s, the café playing the shouting and slurping of eaters and passing traffic. What a gamut of inspiring sensations this city presents. Why on earth is London currently hailed as some tastebud paradise?

And so you can tell I am excited. Excited as this place has held such a fascination for so many years, and so my perception is over the top, almost greedy in its lust to lap it all up. I am an animal from central London. A creature who knows and navigates her daily routes and maps through a filtered hearing system that has subliminally evolved over time. A beast who 20 years ago chose to fine tune that system so that now there is an almost instrumental skill there. Tune in tune out focus relocate but with all the knowledge of an audio home ground grown in the London territory. So take that animal and fling it into new territory and it will need to sip and taste all the new information to be able to lose its London audio filters and truly hear what is going on there, jet lag confusions aside. This takes time.

“What is the sound of Shanghai?”

“What are your favourite sounds of Shanghai?”

These questions are regularly launched at me and if I give answers – rather than explain that I have no favourite sound and that I am still learning to listen to this city and that it will take time to really hear it, and that my favourite sound now could be different tomorrow or next week, and what is a favourite sound anyway and what does it mean? – I will comment on sounds that surprise, delight or stand out, like the sound of cotton soled shoes on the city pavement or the particular beep of the pedestrian lights or the flanged voice of the woman on the subway or the fog horn from the Huangpu that often wakes me at 5am. In fact the first time I heard it was monumental. Gasping hot in the grip of hotel air-con fever I am woken by the sound of a huge and distant horn resonating in the valley,(or so it seems). The sound is wet and full, like it comes though fog and hangs in the air as a dark grey trail hanging gold, repeating again and again through my dreams. Friends are surprised as the river is more than a mile away, but I hear this sound my 2nd night in Shanghai, and I still can hear it now, hanging and ringing as a call in the night.

Back in London I am excited, exhausted and inspired. I am smacked by the contrasts and contradictions Shanghai embodies. I propose to make a band with the Shanghainese opera couple, the local erhu player (no, I don’t want a professional one), the girls String orchestra, Shanghainese electronic musician B-6, a Shanghainese girl rapper we will still have to find and me live sampling and processing. To be performed at night in People’s Square with a massive quad PA, film projection and an astonishing stage show. This would obviously need writing, workshop, talk and play time so not only time and space but translation is required. Too ambitious a project for now, so we agree to shelve and out comes the second idea.

What interests me is that Sound and the City is a project about listening. This is where my work comes from and at this time I was just beginning collaborative research project Music for Bodies ( making new music and exploring ways of feeling it through your body rather than just through your ears. Back in 1997, I had discovered that playing unusual music that moved and vibrated through furniture gave the sitter a way in to a sound world they might never tolerate sitting and listening through speakers at home or in a concert. I had just made and exhibited Sonic Bed_London (commissioned by Electra 2005) which had astonishingly exemplified this fact, as well as it creating a new musical instrument that was begging to be developed.

My early fascination with China had originated from discovering acupuncture and the meridian system in the 80’s. Combined with the fact that experimental electronic music seems a new and largely unknown territory there, an instrument installed for a duration to play this new music moving through visitors lying bodies seemed obvious. I therefore proposed that we build Sonic Bed_Shanghai. For it to be built by Shanghainese artisans with Chinese materials, upholstered in Shanghainese fabric and playing a piece I would make from sounds I recorded in Shanghai moving through a 12 channel Chinese sound system immersed in the Bed. That this Bed would use the same design as London Bed, be installed not in a gallery, but in a public space such as a room in a shopping centre or a tea house or a summer house in a park or a museum or a library. Long term, the Bed should remain in an accessible location in Shanghai with it being possible for composers or groups of young or old people being facilitated to make their own works for it. The Bed will need a team of guardians.

The idea was gladly accepted on the mutual understanding that I would first need to return for a second recce to meet the appropriate builders and makers, discuss materials, visit and view potential spaces and organisers, look at and choose fabrics for the upholstery, as well as make any further sound recordings and arrange the projects documentation.

Monday February 20th 2006.

Shanghai February; a city of water and cold. Water from the sky in relentless sheets that blew on a wind which permeates endless damp and penetrates to the bone. Using air con systems turned to red instead of blue doesn’t provide the heat to dry and warm this London girl who spends the week distracted by damp and cold, longing for thicker socks, and wellington boots and the heat of a fire. I am installed in another area of town, Out in the north west outskirts in high rise new housing. More of a Legoland feel this architecture but a delight to be amongst Shanghainese dwellers of all kinds rather than downtown conning tourist land.

I have decided that the main sound source for the Bed music will be the horn sound that so roused my first trip here. The sound itself, smooth and long with a gritty edge at the start will be rich for processing. It also contains much bass, as do all those gorgeous boat engines, and should work well, even harmonically, moving up and down the sub woofers under the mattress. Turning the Bed into a vibrating sonic water tank? Yes the Huangpu river and the metropolitan historical mix that is Bund life seems to signify much of Shanghai’s special atmosphere. I flag up that I still have to get the ideal horn recording, (how can I catch them? 4pm or 5am? and its always so wet and windy!). With all the meetings and plans to be confirmed and media guzzling time and a lecture at the Conservatory, again it is to be a tightly packed trip, and relentlessly cold.

Straight off the plane and we are negotiating interviews where I am dodging the dreaded what is your favorite sound questions. Then the proposed Bed builders arrive and we pour over the Bed plans (previously sent from England), with it striking me that Bonny now has more of a responsibility than ever! Not only does she have to organize and guide and placate as well as translate non stop, now she has to accurately deal with essential technical information concerning wood type, speaker capacitance, fabric type and texture, and my site specific way of working with the moment. Her patience grows.

Bed build meeting is straightforward and successful and when we meet again at the end of the week, the team are happy to hand carve a flower design I have drawn inspired by ancient Chinese Bed visits and fabric patterns and a certificate background. Sound production meeting is not so clear as the duo have not come across the make of amp and speaker I specify – I also discover this week how restricted the internet is here- so although we can communicate quite well with numbers for dimensions and technical specifications, I leave with an unresolved choice of models I know nothing about to chase up back in London.

The fabric situation is the same in that even though we get down to that huge and stunning market as often as we can, I can’t quite find what I am looking for. I had gone thinking that this would be the easy bit. Select some ornately embroidered smooth red satin for covers and with a more transparent version for the side panels to let the tweeter highs through. Of course I discover that the colour red has many meanings, with marriage being the most significant, so this must be avoided. After fantastic trips to the Textile and Shanghai museums, the solution easily emerges. I leave wanting to find a deep dark dark blue/indigo colour found in old cottons no longer woven, with a simple repeated white flower pattern. I am reminded of fabric dying and printing I’ve seen in West Africa which uses similar patterns to these old Shanghainese ones although how the pattern is laid onto the fabric and then repeated is very different. The Chinese version seems much more methodical, minimal, geometric, even manufactured, although every mark is printed by hand. I am again impressed.

Friday April 14th 2006.

Back at Pudong to install Sonic Bed_Shanghai at the XuHui Art Museum, opening on Thursday 20th. Yes we tried to find alternative locations but shopping centres and parks and museums either needed money we didn’t have or could not provide the access that this gallery could.

Within an hour of landing I am saying to Bonny, “At last I am starting to hear this city! If I was to make a piece for the Bed now, it would be so different.” Yes the horn sound on the Bund has become a signature for me here, but truthfully, left to my own timings and devices, I would be making a piece that used the in-betweeen sounds. The shuffles and bleeps and clicks and pops and breath that the air seems to resonate when you really tune in. My third visit and “things” are more normal. The tiny sounds are the ones that speak to me.

As usual we have a tight schedule to meet. And we are still excited. All these months of work sending vital information backwards and forwards via email have produced Sonic Bed_Shanghai. It seems a miracle. When I am allowed to go see it being put together in the gallery, my first thoughts are, agh! its too small! I sent the wrong dimensions!

Sonic Bed_Shanghai sits dark brown in the middle of a big bare room, surrounded by several people putting it together surrounded by onlookers all talking flat out and it looks tiny. In fact its fine, more than fine. Mr. Shi Jianhua has done a fabulous job, especially on the flower carved surfaces on the top edges and steps. Yes the design really works. All I have to do now is come and test and check the sound system with Mr. Chen Yongxiang then install the new piece Horn in the BC laptop that will play the piece hidden within the Bed, and then we will be ready with 2 days to spare.

Of course, not quite as simple as that. The connection issues are solved relatively quickly although it becomes clear that the reality of a 12 channel sound system running off 5 amplifiers, each one needing to be tuned and balanced is a new situation, and oh does translation slow things down, so that eats up one day. Next issue is the mattress which is much too thin and within 20 minutes my bottom is pressing on the woofa protectors. The replacement though is too dense, but these are the only 2 densities of mattress foam that exist in China. Oh. Well we will have to go with the dense one then. Oh no. In fact it is fabulous, (now SB _London has this denser foam) as its greater density transmits vibrations itself, rather than just acting as a filter.

The greatest surprise though is playing “Horn” made in London in Bed made in Shanghai. The venue, the instrument that is Sonic Bed_Shanghai is quite a different beast to SB_London. Its dark wood, carved surfaces and lively dark blue cotton white flower patterned covers creates a very different space. It doesn’t have the calm quality SB_London has and yes it sounds different too. I have to rework the piece, so settle down to spending the time that is left to do that. Though again, not so simple. The Museum is a noisy space with all its flat concrete surfaces, and there are many many people also trying to finish building things talking at a high volume all the time. Combined with City officials needing to check all the work at 9am on the day of the opening cuts work time further, and many of us are up all night, with hearing sensations beginning to go off the rails.

But we make it. All is installed and the media have their frenzy at opening time. I am surprised how people are amazed and intrigued by the Bed but very few people get in. Some are also upset that its not always completely “pleasurable” and that they can’t hear “favourite sounds of Shanghai”. Visitors instead stand around and talk and feel the Bed and that seems to be as far as most want to go. This is difficult as if they would only get in, they would understand it as the music is made to be felt not just listened to. It sounds like one thing outside which really makes sense when you lie in it; bass and sub bass and mids and highs spinning and rolling and folding and sucking and lifting and floating and caressing or stimulating the lyer in ever changing patterns. I am mistaken not to have insisted on creating a more intimate space. In London no-one hesitated to hop into Bed with one or two strangers. Over the days that follow we try to deal with this by gathering plastic covers for peoples shoes(removing them in public is an issue) and keeping the light low. The whole approach is obviously something quite alien to most.

Thanks to the fabulous facilitation of Bonny there is great support from the Shanghai Music Conservatory and Professor Chen for this project. I gave a lecture there in February, have been made an Honorary Professor and Sonic Bed_Shanghai will appear in the first electro-acoustic music festival in Shanghai in October. Currently we are negotiating my returning for a month’s residency at the conservatory to workshop with and facilitate a small group of students to make their own works for the bed, so that they can enable others, as well as commission a composer. Bed’s future life needs to be carefully planned. I am also craving to have some calm time to make a new piece for it from all those in between sounds.

With much thanks to all at the British Council in London and Shanghai, most especially Bonny Zhu, Leah Zakks and Colin Chinnery for creating this wonderful opportunity and a project that will continue to grow. I think we made quite a step to bringing new music and maybe some new ideas about listening to everyone.

KM. September 2006.