Technology's Attitude Toward The by chenshu


									Technology's Attitude Toward The Chinese: Synthesizers, Music Software

and Turntables in Contemporary Beijing

[Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations (HPAIR), Shanghai 18th-

21st of August 2004, Science and Technology workshop. Basile Zimmermann,

Ph.D. candidate, Dept. of Chinese Studies, University of Geneva, Switzerland.


This paper presents observations I carried out in Beijing during the summer of

2001 and the academic year 2003-2004, as well as discusses the direction I

plan to give to my analysis. It is part of a Ph.D. thesis I will defend at the

University of Geneva in October 2005, directed by Prof. Michael Lackner

(University of Erlangen, Germany) between 2001 and 2003, and by Prof. Nicolas

Zufferey (University of Geneva, Switzerland) since 2004. It is co-directed by

Prof. Ellen Hertz (University of Neuchatel, Switzerland).

The main objective of my research is to analyze the role of technology in the

production of culture through a detailed study of the emerging Chinese

electronic music scene in Beijing. Instead of focusing on access and attitudes

toward technology (as do most current and past studies on technology), the

question is taken from a reverse point of vue, considering technology as a social

actor, and ask the question of its non-neutrality and its influence on the user.

The methodological approach I have used so far is largely inspired by the

writings of the American sociologists Howard S. Becker and Anselm Strauss,

and the in-depth ethnographic methods developed by the Chicago School.

Beside a general presentation of my observations for the purpose of the

workshop, the aim of this short paper is to show that while many people think of

technology and science as being super-cultural, not tied to any particular

country or culture, the opposite might be closer to the truth. My observations in

the field of electronic music in Beijing show that Western technology carries,

built into it, ideas that constrain the activity of its Chinese users. Everytime a

Chinese musician plays or composes a piece, it is as if a virtual Westerner is

collaborating with him.

The easiest way to produce culture faster is to rely on other people's work

The French essayist Paul Virilio has brilliantly discussed technology as a

systematic attempt to increase speed and to reduce distance1. The classic

example of this is transportation: where in the past, one needed weeks to travel

from one country to another, today, because of technology, the same distance

can be covered in a matter of hours. Paul Virilio raises the question of the cost

of these advances2. An other formulation, I suggest, is in terms of a change or a

move: when we get something more, we (or someone else) get something less.

In the case of the production of culture, the more achieved by technology is

rather obvious. The question is, what do we have less of and what are the

consequences of this change. There are of course many, the ones I will examine

here could be considered negative consequences. I have chosen this focus

because these negative consequences are frequently overlooked.

1.   Paul Virilio, La Vitesse de libération, Paris: Editions Galillée, 1995.

2.   Ibid., 147.
The synthesizer player

In August 2001 when I began my project, I decided to do short-term field

research in Beijing, mostly to see if the ideas I wanted to discuss were relevant

and the theoretical approach chosen appropriate. In Beijing, I asked both

Chinese and foreigners where I could hear "electronic music" (dianzi yinyue). I

ended up in a club at Sanlitun3, where a local band was performing "live

electronics" (dianzi yinyue xianchang yanchu) three days a week.

The band was composed of four musicians: a bass player, a guitar player, a

sampler player (an electronic instrument), and a synthesizer player. Through

interviews, I learned that three of them were skilled professionals who had

performed regularly with different famous rock bands in Beijing for more than

ten years. However, the synthesizer player had only six months of practice with

his instrument and no previous experience in doing music.

Anyone familiar with music instruments knows that six months of study, even for

the most diligent, is far from enough to be able to            play with professional

musicians. For even the most talented, at least two or three years are necessary

3.   Well-known area in Peking with many bars and night-clubs. Most foreign Embassies are located
to reach an acceptable level of competence.

The analysis of the music performed at the club, along with an interview with the

synthesizer player showed that he was actually relying on the presets of the

Roland MC-505 synthesizer he was using. The presets are built-in sequences of

music one can find in most synthesizers available on the market today. Usually

written by musicians hired by the company who sells the device, they are

supposed to help the user to get an idea of the possibilities and functions of the

device he has acquired and the music content he can expect to achieve by

using it.

The synthesizer player explained to me that he did try at the beginning to write

his own sequences and sounds, but he realized that his production was not as

good as the built-in presets. He had found it very difficult to read the owner's

manual, written in English, and no Chinese version was available. He concluded

by saying that this was a good way to study how to use the device, and that

once he felt comfortable with it he would definitely write the sequences by


To start a new song, the synthesizer player usually proceeded as follows: a)

listen to the presets and choose one that seem appropriate b) remove part of
the sequences included in the preset (the presets of the MC-505 were

composed of several sequences, e.g. a bass line, a rhythm section, and a

melody), and keep only one           c) play the selected part during the live

performance with the other musicians and apply some live effects to the sound.

I noted that because of the limited musical skills of the synthesizer player, who

was unable to adjust his work with the others musicians, they had to adjust their

work to his; the music always started from him —i.e. from the preset—, and the

band would then compose a new song on the basis provided.

We see that technology —the Roland MC-505— allowed the synthesizer player

to play with professional musicians in a matter of months; in other words, he

was able to become a musician faster. However, his learning method had a

price, the music produced by the band was not entirely his own, and indeed

was written in part by a programmer somewhere in Los Angeles or Tokyo —who

I like to say was virtually playing with the band.

Also, we note that the MC-505 synthesizer is anything but neutral; it contains

presets (and much more, but not to be discussed here), which can be

considered as choices, decisions, knowledge, in a way part of the culture —of

the people who designed it.
The multi-track recorder player

Between September 2003 and April 2004 I have observed the work of an

experimental musician in Beijing. The artist is well-known in the "underground"

Chinese scene. He already released four solo albums, and is stylistically

categorized as a noise artist or experimental music artist (gao shiyan yinyue de).

Through interviews conducted at his home and place of work, by listening to

several of his live solo performances, and by working with him on some

technical problems he had using my own computer and musical skills, I have

been able to understand the basic proceedings underlying his compositions.

They can be summarized as follows:

First, he puts some sounds in his Roland VS-880 multi-track recorder. The

soundfiles are generated by recording live sounds he plays himself, either using

acoustic instruments (e.g. bells, erhu), or the output of a commercial CD-player

on which he plays a CD he has selected in order to use a part of the record he is

interested in (I noted a compact disc of traditional Indian percussions, and a

CDR of minimal techno from a Swiss musician that was lent to the artist by a


Second, he uses the editing functions provided by the device to modify the

recorded soundfiles, removing the parts he doesn't need, and keeping the parts

he expects to use. Then, he applies different sound effects provided by the

machine, from built-in basic sound treatments (e.g. modify the amount of low or

high frequencies, in a similar way as we do when we manipulate the treble,

medium and bass knobs of our home hi-fi devices), to more elaborate

transformations through the use of a dedicated effects-card the artist purchased

together with the multi-track recorder.

If his goal is to create a new work, he will manipulate the soundfiles and

eventually merge the different sound channels until he gets one stereo track

which he considers as satisfying (The Roland VS-880 is capable of playing back

up to eight independent audio signals simultaneously, which must then be

mixed down to one stereo track, i.e. two audio channels, in order to be played

on stereo devices). He will then go to a friend who owns a computer with a

soundcard installed (necessary for the transfer of the soundfiles to the

computer) and burn his track to an audio CD format, that will then be

commercialized in the usual way.

If he is doing a live performance, he will play some pre-recorded soundfiles and

apply effects to modify them live during the performance, and sometimes also
use a sound source (which can be a mini-disc or live instruments like Chinese

bells) on which he will also apply effects on the fly.

As far as I can tell, all the live performances and recordings of this artist include

quite a few minutes of recorded music done by someone else. These are quite

easy to identify by ear, since a drum pattern, or that of a variety of other

instruments cannot have been played by the artist himself, who neither owns

this kind of instruments nor is able to play them.

Therefore, one can say the multi-track recorder artist is using other people's

music to create his own works —in the same manner as did the synthesizer

player. The music is a result of a collaboration between the artist and the people

who composed and played the music he chose to use in his work.

The computer musician

During the current academic year 2003-2004, I have observed the work and the

study of a Chinese musician using an Apple Macintosh iBook computer. One

important part of this fieldwork was done through regular meetings with the

musician, where we wrote together music software using a well-known
language in the field: MaxMSP4.

MaxMSP consists in a serie of software "objects" that can be freely combined

using graphic icons. The user must link the objects together in order to create a

piece of software that suits his needs and which is then called a "patch". This

graphic-based programming environment is dedicated to the making of music

software, and is actually leading in the area of computer music software in most

conservatories in the world. It is however very difficult to learn at the beginning,

and most people need one to two years of study before being able to write their

own patches by themselves.5

I met this musician for the first time during my short-term field research in

Beijing in the summer of 2001. I had taken my laptop with me, and while we

were discussing music issues I briefly introduced him to my own works using

MaxMSP. The software gave him a strong impression. He managed to get an

Apple Macintosh iBook laptop (at that time MaxMSP was only available on

Macintosh), and spent the next two years studying it alone, developing his own

skills with this new tool.

4.   Http://
5.   I studied myself MaxMSP at the Conservatory of Geneva between 1998 and 1999, and I have been
     using it on a regular basis for my own live music performances during the last four years.
During that time, he systematically downloaded patches written by other people

that he could find on the Internet, and closely examined each of them. Some of

them he decided to use and even compose music with. The main patch he used

was written by a German programmer, and consists of an emulation of an old

Japanese analog drum machine, which relies on the uses of samples (pieces of

recorded soundfiles). He also downloaded enormous quantities of sound

samples from various private and public websites on the Internet.

The musical works he composed and that I have been able to analyze

afterwards were created using a) the emulation patch of the Japanese drum

machine written by the German programmer b) different soundfiles, which in

their majority were drum sounds sampled from original analog synthesizers

produced in Japan and the USA. Some sounds were slightly modified with

software effects that he used through the patch. His activity as a composer and

a musician was to choose the right patch, to choose the right sound samples,

and to put them together using the computer and the software interface in a

musical way.

One day, as we were discussing the commands that must be used with a

category of objects in MaxMSP ("start", "stop", "read", "write", etc.), he asked
me: So I need to use the command "stop", I cannot use "ting" ("stop" in

Mandarin), right? Of course, I replied, MaxMSP speaks English, it does not

speak Chinese.

As we can see, although the MaxMSP programming environment allows the

user to create his own software (and soundfiles), the method chosen by the

computer musician has brought him to a situation very much close to the

synthesizer player. The works produced using the German patch and the

downloaded samples can be described as a mix of other people's work, which

is assembled by the artist through a selection of the different components. We

also note that MaxMSP (as most computer language today) is based on the

English language, which implies that any person who wants to use it must have

at least a basic knowledge of English6.

The DJ and music producer

From 2003 to 2004, I also followed the work of a Beijing disc-jockey (DJ) who

6.   In order to better understand what it implies -most computer languages today are English-based-
     we can reverse the situation: imagine that anyone who writes software must have -at first- a basic
     knowledge of the Chinese language; take in account that the grammar is very different, what would
     be the implications of such cultural differences in programming?
makes a living by playing on a regular basis in clubs in the capital and in other

cities in China. He is also a music producer, and writes his own songs which he

then mixes at clubs or releases on CD.

As a DJ, he used two turn-tables, a mixer, and vinyls. Since there are neither

shops selling DJ vinyls in mainland China7 nor Chinese musicians producing

their own vinyls on a regular basis, the traditional way to get vinyls for Beijing's

DJs is to buy them from the West. The most frequent method used during the

last few year is to rely on friends (foreigners or Chinese) who travel to Western

countries, notably Europe, the USA and Australia. This situation implies that the

vinyls played by Beijing DJs were all written and performed by foreigners.

For his own production, the music producer used a personal computer running

the operating system Windows XP (professional edition)8, and several music

softwares. As is often the case in China, all his software was pirated, either

provided by friends, or downloaded through dedicated Chinese musicians

websites and forums. The main software he used at the time of my observation

was Cubase SX9, together with software synthesizers and samplers. All of this

7.   I heard of one shop in Shenzhen which focuses on more popular (liuxing) music, but could not
     really be compared to the DJ shops in the West.
8.   Http://
9.   Http://
software is developed by Western companies, mostly German in this case.

Cubase SX is a sequencer, probably the most popular form of music software

used for composition during the last decade. It consists in an interface very

similar to a score for a street organ, with a timeline where the user "writes"

down the musical events sequenced between the beginning and the end of the

song. One particularity of sequencers is that they allow the user to use plug-ins,

external pieces of software (written by the same company or by other people)

that perform dedicated tasks, e.g. a special sound effect that gives a robotic

color to a human voice recording. Plug-ins are integrated in or removed from the

main application (here the sequencer) according to the user's needs.

As with the synthesizer player, I could observe that he was heavily relying on the

presets provided by the associated software. For example, he would use a bass

synthesizer plug-in, and start with one of the bass sounds provided in its

internal presets he would then modify according to his own taste. He was also

systematically using sound samples downloaded from the Internet (the most

obvious being the drums samples), in a way similar to the computer musician

described above.

One afternoon, we discussed one of his songs, exchanging ideas about what
kind of effects should be applied to a dance remix he was writing. He asked me

to show him how I would proceed. I sat in front of his computer, and chose a

plug-in in his (huge) plug-ins collection which I inserted on the main melody

track. I adjusted its fifteen parameters according to my taste. We listened to the

result, then I stood up and said "This is more or less what I would do". I moved

aside. He sat again in front of his computer, and adjusted one or two

parameters, leaving the others untouched.

To better understand what technology is about, we can exchange the plug-in

with, say, a guitar. I play a song on a guitar, then I pass it to someone else

saying "This is more or less what I would do". How much of my decisions, my

personal musical feeling, is left in the guitar? None. But in the example above,

all the choices that I made were left inside the application. Moreover, unless he

changed again all of the fifteen parameters, even if only one was left untouched,

part of his work is mine.

We see that the work of this DJ and music producer, again, is very much

comparable to the three other examples described above. The main points are

the use of recordings of other people, the use of sound samples downloaded

from the Internet, and the use of presets included in the software or hardware.

Furthermore, the last example with the plug-in shows us one important aspect

of technology: it accumulates people's decisions.

There are of course many other elements worth mentioning about the work of

the artists I mentioned above. For this discussion, I have decided to focus on

one particular aspect of this modern technology, something I have described as

a virtual presence.

It is important to understand that the process itself has little to do with China or

Chinese culture10. Chineseness, if there is such a thing, can only occur either

before the technology (i.e. at the invention stage) or after (the well-known issue

of access to and attitudes toward technology). Therefore, it is interesting to

question the tools alone.11

An important aspect of technological objects such as computer or synthesizers

is that they are not human. Even better, they are not alive. That means we

cannot expect them to change much according to their environment, or behave

10.   I did not do any fieldwork in the West but the few observations I have made in Switzerland and the
      comments I often read on American musicians forums make me believe that not only the
      technology is the same in the West, but also that Western electronic musicians work pretty much
      in the same way as their Chinese collegues, -including the use of presets or the difficulties in
      reading the manuals. The Chinese context is however very useful for me as a Westerner -to help
      me see and analyse the cultural implications of technology.
11.   The multi-track recorder artist described above could, for example, decide to use only Chinese
      recordings in his works. He could not however neither modify the English-only interface of his
      device nor change its built-in effects (I will discuss these issues in my final thesis).
in a very different way according to their users. Since the absence of possibility

for change implies heavy constraints on the use of the technology, we need to

pay more attention to its consequences on the development of world societies.

Any technological tool always carries, built into it, ideas that influences the way

the people using the technology work. It can be as simple as a concept (e.g.

enter words in a computer using a keyboard), or as rich as a full artistic creation

as in the case of recordings. The consequences on the users, and in the case of

culture on the production of artistic works, vary according to the different


All the technological objects I have been observing in China embodied a certain

number of choices or decisions taken by their respective Western creators,

which often resulted in several minors or majors conflicts when the user's ideas

were different. Technical examples with music are difficult to expose in a short

presentation since they require some basic knowledge in the field, but anyone

who ever used a text editor with an automatic check spelling function knows

what I am talking about: any input that differs from the dictionary database will

be highlighted, or better (worse?) automatically corrected. In China, today, one

cannot but use Western punctuation instead of Chinese punctuation when

writing SMS on certain mobile phones12, in the same way the computer

musician above could not speak Mandarin to the MaxMSP software —because

the engineers who designed it did not take those issues into consideration.

From a socio-cultural point of view, this may be the most striking aspect of

today's technology: the struggle against the difference.

There are various ways to express these aspects of technology from theoretical

perspective. In the case of culture, I believe the idea of speed suggested by

Paul Virilio can be useful. Since we somehow want to produce culture faster, we

more and more rely on other people's production, — and it implies that we have

to deal with their decisions. This aspect is preeminent in today artistic

production, where one could say there is an increasing shift of the creation

process moving from the main artist to the people who produce the tools.

I believe the actual trend in matter of use of technology in the production of

12.   SMS in Chinese sent using Motorola mobile phones in Beijing usually have Western rather than
      Chinese punctuation marks (e.g., commas are positioned on the lines, as in English). The same
      message written and sent with a Nokia mobile phone will however use the Chinese punctuation
      (commas positioned at mid-height of the lines). This slight difference of format between mobile
      phones is due to the design and the interface of the different language input methods provided by
      each manufacturer. In other words, part of the content of the message is decided by the device, or
      indirectly by the human being who designed it.
      Users' attitude toward technology remains of course a very important factor. I observed that
      Chinese users of mobile phones often use classical Chinese structures when writing SMS to write
      faster (classical Chinese is more concise than modern Mandarin), where English or French users
      will somehow turn their respective languages into something new.
culture will lead to uniformity of Chinese contemporary culture based upon

Western standards; a kind of Western culture with Chinese characteristics.

China is still a very different place than Western countries, including basic

human facts such as eating with chopsticks, or the use of Chinese characters

for written language. With Chinese electronic musicians using the same tools,

hearing the same music as their Western colleagues, and having their work

shaped by this very same technology, I hardly imagine huge basic differences

between China and Western countries in the production of music works in the


Basile Zimmermann

University of Geneva, Switzerland

The author thanks Professor QIU Zeqi for constructive discussions and criticism at
various stages of the research project and for the invitation to join his team of graduate
and postgraduate students at the Department of Sociology of Peking University during
the academic year 2003-2004, and DENG Suo (Ph.D. candidate, Dept. of Sociology of
Peking University) for useful suggestions while discussing the theoretical analysis. The
financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation under grant PBGE 1
101317 is gratefully acknowledged.

Peking, July 2004


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