Notes From the Underground: Caligine’s Strange and Fragile Sounds

Caligine with Alex Yiu live in Hong Kong, 2013

Caligine with Alex Yiu live in Hong Kong, 2013.

The music of Caligine, a k a Italian-born musician and writer Gabriele de Seta, is rare and beautiful. His brittle, unsettling, folk-inflected explorations draw on fingerpicked guitar, eerie dronings and the clunks and whirrs of broken-down machinery to create a shifting hybrid of the pastoral reveries of Robbie Basho and the ambient rumblings of U.S. free rock adventurers Smegma.

His latest release, “Shiyun/Yuxuan,” documents two meetings with Chinese experimental musicians, compiled into a beautifully put-together double 5-inch CD-R. Available as a limited run of 50 copies from the tiny French label Nothing Out There, it’s a beguiling and intriguing set.

Now living in Hong Kong, De Seta has been recording music since 2005, initially releasing self-published cassettes and CD-Rs of soundscapes from his home in Rome. Whereas early releases saw him exploring eardrum-battering noise and field recordings, recently he has moved away from these unrelenting torrents, seeking a calmer, more nuanced and communal style.

He creates music under several different names and personae. Caligine is his vessel for exploring folky, guitar-based improvisations. Naturalismo, on the other hand, takes things into harsher, noisier territory. He also curates Monstres par Excès, a D.I.Y. record label dedicated to releasing works from all manner of musicians at the margins of underground rock, free improvisation and experimental sound. This year, the label celebrated five years of activity with a retrospective, “Ohrwurm Culture,” available free from its website.

I first met De Seta earlier this year while researching underground music in Hong Kong. He was courteous and knowledgeable, a spirit guide to the hidden sounds of that city. But I wanted to find out more about his own musical activities, as well as dig deeper into some of the eccentric sounds coming out of the region. The release of “Shiyun/Yuxuan” was the perfect opportunity.

De Seta tells me that his links with China date back to an initial visit to Shanghai in 2007, where he hooked up with Junky from Shanghai’s notorious Torturing Nurse collective. He has been skipping between China, The Netherlands, Italy and Hong Kong ever since, collaborating with Chinese musicians, playing at festivals and releasing his own and other artists’ music.

Caligine live in Italy, 2012

Caligine live in Italy, 2012.

The first disc of his latest Caligine release, “Shiyun,” was recorded in Hangzhou, in eastern China, in 2010. It teams De Seta with experimental guitarist Li Jianhong, a veteran of the Chinese noise-rock scene. The music is abstract and open-ended, with spiky guitar figures weaving through a babble of clunks, crashes, whirrs and hisses. Sometimes, as in “L’Altro Lato del Tramonto,” it makes for a tense atmosphere, a lone guitar playing as eerie drones and otherworldly screeches and feedback echo behind, creating a strange and dystopian sound world.

“Acid Taro Blues” meanwhile, as the name suggests, brings some semblance of a blues structure to the improvisation, albeit a lopsided, disjointed one. An acoustic guitar chugs out a wayward, solitary riff, accompanied by a nagging, two-note solo from a second guitar, before sagging and lolling into silence.

Elsewhere, the musical and non-musical blends together to create an undulating, textured clamour, notably on the final track of the session, “Aria n.88 per Eclissi ed UFO Ben Temperato.” Shimmering echo, shredding guitar, phantom harmonica, burbling electronics and all manner of turbulence combine in a righteous 20-minute jam of cosmic proportions.

To those not versed in the idioms and practices of free improvisation, the initial response to these songs may be one of bafflement, or confusion. But these pieces are part of a fertile tradition in experimental music of emancipating elements not previously thought of as “music”–everyday sounds, noises, background commotion, and artificially-created tones–and making them an integral part of the surface and the content of the music.

It’s not difficult to adjust your ears to their enriched sound field. The pieces have a natural-feeling complexity, like hearing the hubbub of the city, with their own micro-rhythms and tonal range. You can listen to them again and again, and they sound different every time, as individual details emerge and retreat from the thoroughly enjoyable din. It’s a mode of listening that the British recording artist and composer David Cunningham likens to observing a plant or a tree: “You don’t look at every branch and leaf individually, but they’re all there if you want to look closer.”

The second disc in the set, “Yuxuan,” is a recording of a session with Zhu Xiaolong, late of the Chinese underground rock band Tongue and now a solo performer. In contrast to the previous disc’s atonality, “Yuxuan”–named after Zhu Xiaolong’s son–offers up delicate fragments of melody that open up like flowers slowly unfolding in the dawn.

In the title track, twin acoustic guitars pluck delicate and tentative melodies, at first separate, then intertwined, resulting in a feeling of stillness and calm. “Haarlem Waltz” is an elegant nostalgic nod to the gypsy swing of Django Reinhardt. “Haiya Haiou,” which starts the record, is a beautiful, gem-like fragment. There’s a contrast to all this delicacy in “Cecilia,” which opens with propulsive, downward rhythm guitar that adds some heft to its spidery, flamenco lead lines. And the 41 seconds of “Dunzouqu” is an all-too brief explosion of furious strumming.

Recording sessions for this disc took place at the musicians’ apartments, and it has a correspondingly homespun quality. Songs are marked by the intrusion of ambient sounds, of seagulls circling outside the apartment, of people moving around and of Zhu Xiaolong’s son happily chatting and playing in the background. As on “Shiyun,” the inclusion of sounds normally filtered out or erased from musical recordings only enhances our listening.

Listening to these two sessions over the past few weeks, I became more and more curious about how they were made. I wanted to know more about the musicians, for sure–after all, the Chinese underground music scene hasn’t exactly been widely documented in the mainstream rock press. But, more than anything, I wanted to find out how De Seta and his collaborators achieved such a special feel to the records, this curious mixture of mellow and bare, homely and unsettling.

Fortunately De Seta was more than willing to oblige. So, here’s a digest of a long, sprawling email conversation, carried out over several weeks that spans these latest Caligine discs, his curatorial ethos for Monstres par Excès, and some thoughts on why it is tricky to generalize about the experimental music in a country as vast and culturally diverse as China.

THE BOMBER JACKET: Could you start by telling me a bit more about the musicians you’re playing with on these sessions?

Gabriele de Seta: Li Jianhong [who plays on “Shiyun”] is one of the first and most popular experimental musicians in China. He started playing guitar in the psychedelic/noise rock units Second Skin and D!O!D!O!D!, founded a label (2PI, then China Free Improvisation), then went solo with abstract noise and heavily distorted guitar drone. Lately he has been working on range of collaborations with his partner, Vavabond, and goes for a more subdued, ambient kind of improvisations.

Zhu Xiaolong [who plays on “Yuxuan”] was the guitar player of Tongue (Shetou), one of the most popular Chinese underground rock bands in the late ’90s. He left the band for a while and, while living abroad, he explored different kinds of music, from jazz to the ethnic music of Eastern China. Tongue recently reformed and he’s currently touring China with them.

How did you get to know them?

I followed Li Jianhong’s releases and live shows for quite a while. I like the stuff he did around 2004-2008 and really wanted to play with him. I met him at some of his concerts, and after I got to know him a little bit, I asked him if he wanted to jam together, and we went to visit him in Hangzhou in 2010. He very kindly let us play in the small bar he was working at for an entire day.

I met Zhu Xiaolong in 2011 by pure chance. He was playing in The Hague at a cultural event organized by my research supervisor at the time, and we got introduced through common friends. I loved his impromptu performance that day, and since we were both living in the Netherlands at the time we ended up jamming at his home a couple of times.

How did you record these sessions?

It’s all recorded live in bars or living rooms. We were improvising together for both records.

I’m not very fond of long-distance collaborations. If you’re swapping files over the Internet or email, you have plenty of time to think about your answer to the other’s recording, and as a result it becomes a mostly an individual effort rather than an improvisation. I do love how some of these turn out, usually when the musicians have a specific workflow that makes them interesting. I’m thinking of Ben Chasny and Hiroyoki Usui’s “August Born,” or Tetuzi Akiyama and Jozef van Wissem. But generally, I prefer real impromptu playing, a real mutual unbalancing played on the edge of uncertainty.

Did you have any initial idea or concept for these recordings?

There was no concept really. Both collaborations were extremely limited in time–the Li Jianhong one is just one entire session, without cuts or edits, and the collaboration with Zhu is maybe four  or five hours of material boiled down to one hour.

The initial idea was just to sit down and talk through sounds, but actually, we didn’t talk at all beforehand. With Li Jianhong, my Chinese was very bad at the time, so I think we just said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And after a break we decided “let’s get a bit more noisy.” But that’s it.

With Zhu Xiaolong, it was even more natural, we just sat down and played–it wasn’t even meant to become a record.

Tell me more about the sounds and textures of “Shiyun.” Was it all performed and recorded live?

We had just two guitars (acoustic and electric), a harmonica and some objects. Li Jianhong had his guitar effects pedals and an old radio cabinet as amplifier, and my friends Gregorio and Pupa were playing everything they could find in the bar–radios, chairs, a sampler, hand drums and other percussion, cups, cutlery, toys.

So we just thought, “Well, let’s just lock ourselves in this place and play.” I was very inspired by acts like Set Fire to Flames or the Jewelled Antler Collective and their way of turning very organic and concrete sounds into cohesive yet extremely free compositions. I guess I just wanted to put all of this into play with my own folkish meanderings on acoustic guitar and see how Li Jianhong would respond to that.

Most of the noises are either made by Li Jianhong with guitar and effects, or by Pupa and Gregorio with objects and some electronics–they sound organic and physical because they’re mostly processed and feedbacked samples played through live amplification, so it’s all reverberated by the recording space.

Parts of it are quite unsettling…

I guess this was the result of Li Jianhong’s signature sound and our dialogue with it. I didn’t plan anything, but shifted between following him, ignoring him and challenging him with rhythmic sections or sudden changes.

I knew he could go on with his own stuff but I wanted to take my chance and pull him in uncharted territory–like, what would he do if I start a bluesy riff?–and I guess he did the same to me, by never really settling onto a pattern or breaking up cycles. It was deliberate, yes, I wanted to test some ideas about improvisation and composition.

The un-homely sound might also come from the recording–we recorded with four directional microphones from different angles, so with the mixing I could play with the positioning of the sounds. And it was a really chilly and humid January afternoon.

But parts are almost quite funny, too…

Indeed. Actually you can hear a moment in which Li Jianhong hits the wrong pedal and disengages a loop all of a sudden, and I try to grasp the moment and drop a chord change, and we both laugh and keep going.

In the other record [“Yuxuan”] there’s more moments in which Yuxuan [Zhu Xiaolong’s son] is playing around or bored by our endless plinking sounds and either throws toys around or talks to himself, and you can hear Zhu Xiaolong asking him to be quiet because “we’re playing.” I mean, after all he was playing with his toys, we were playing with our instruments, and both kinds of play are about fun and being funny.

Noise, and in general experimental or improvised music can definitely be funny. In this case it was fun to record and listen back, and I hope it comes through as very relaxed and imperfect attempts at dialogue, more than the result of a studied plan or conceptual statement.

“Yuxuan” is simultaneously very intimate and very lo-fi. How did you manage to achieve such a clear, yet homespun, sound?

To be frank, it simply was not meant to be a record. I just thought that the recordings were actually quite good and they brought me back good memories of those months so I started working on them to bring them out and brighten them a bit.

They are intimate because they are all recorded at home, on sofas and squeaky chairs, with the windows open to the outside noise, the little Yuxuan playing around with toys and sometimes with my cracklebox.

I just used a portable recorder with condenser stereo microphones, then tried to bring the physicality of the guitar out with a bit of mixing. It’s quite natural that, together with the strings, also the ambient sounds popped out and I was actually surprised how they contributed to the songs.

So, I thought well, that’s a bunch of unfinished ideas that I would love to keep listening to. And Constantin from Nothing out There had the same feeling I guess, since he suggested putting the two records out together.

“Yuxuan”  points toward the “American primitive” fingerpicking style of John Fahey, Robbie Basho or Glenn Jones.

I love Fahey, Basho and many others, so I can see how most of my fingerpicking patterns mimic that style more or less successfully.  Zhu Xiaolong, for his part, is much influenced by both gypsy music, jazzy progressions and ethnic music of Eastern China, so I guess that my pastoral textures and his mixture of folk elements might very easily conjure a sort of American primitivist flavor.

Improvisation recordings are by definition, one-off meetings. Do have any plans to revisit these meetings live?

I would love to, especially since I’ll be around Hong Kong and China for a while. I’m thinking of inviting Li Jianhong to come here and do something together if he wants. I actually don’t know if the two of them liked the record! It’s all very immediate and bare recordings, and  they still don’t have a copy. Li Jianhong was actually quite surprised when I told him the record was out, since he forgot we recorded it.

I’d like to hear more about your label, Monstres par Excès.

I set it up when I was back in Italy in 2007 after my second trip to Shanghai. I published records in small runs, mainly Chinese and Italian projects or collaborations, which were sold mostly online or at gigs. As of today, we’re up to about 25 releases spanning various formats and genres, and we have just released a compilation to seal five years of activity.

Does it have a philosophy?

It does, but it has shifted from the way it started. In the beginning I felt that most labels operated just in terms of small circles of friends or trying to attract big names and sellable projects. So I decided to set up a label that would publish mostly everything that people submitted, especially if coming from new names.

But then I noticed that it was overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying, and that I would end up putting a lot of work on release that I didn’t like at all.

So I decided to give the label a more curatorial direction, and I started publishing people that I deem as excluded from “scenes,” or collaborations I did with other musicians. In short, either people I deem not been getting the necessary exposure, or stuff I got involved with face-to-face for collaborations.

How do you decide what to put out?

I have very little time to put into releases, and at the same time I believe in D.I.Y. ethics, and I also want to put the full value of the money I ask for a record into its production.

So I have to work quite a lot to produce nicely packaged releases and make this happen in a restricted amount of time. I mostly release 50% of the stuff that comes from my projects or friend’s projects and 50% of the stuff that people submit to me.

I definitely moved away from the “whatever-friendly” attitude of “all noise is good” and I’m looking mostly at interesting stuff that happens besides the scenes.

What was your first release?

It was a collaboration between a lo-fi noise project I have with some friends (Cassa Ufficio Malattie Tropicali) and Torturing Nurse that we recorded at Xu Cheng’s home in 2007. It was really nice of them to host us and provide us with all their amps and effects. We had very few little boxes of our own to tinker with at the time.

Unfortunately, although it was really fun to record, it sounds terrible! At the time I had absolutely no skills in recording, mixing or mastering, nor any standard to adhere to. It was murky and distorted enough, so I felt that it was good. In a way it might really be what harsh noise is supposed to be, I guess. I rarely listen to that thing, although it has some 30-second tracks that in their stupidity are the best thing we have ever done, I guess.

Are there any highlights?

Well, I’m too involved in most of the releases to actually praise any one of them. They are all imperfect records with a specific interpersonal background. But the compilation we put out this year is the release I’m happiest about, I guess, since I managed to put together unreleased tracks by most of our roster. The precariousness and imperfection are still there, but they sound unexpectedly cohesive together.

What do you have coming up in the future?

I have started collaborating with Lips Infection, another small label from Italy, on some lathe and vinyl runs, so we have a 7’’ split between Venta Protesix (an Italian otaku-noise project) and some young Japanese act in the pipeline.

Also, we have a conceptual and political record coming out for C.U.M.T., and a collaboration between Shock Technician and Bipolar Joe that I keep promising to put out, and a Naturalismo 3’’ CD-R–I just love the format. I try to keep the label releasing three or four records a year.

How much of your own music have you released on Monstres par Excès?

I released a few solo records on Monstres par Excès. I try to release collaborations, and have solo projects come out on other labels. It feels better to somehow give space to other people and the stuff you do with them instead of releasing your own things and peddling them around.

But sometimes I find it really hard to have something published, so I just put it out on a small run, give it to friends as a gift and that’s it. In particular, for Caligine, I try not to publish it on Monstres ParExcès anymore because it doesn’t really fit with the label’s direction.

How has your own music developed since you started back in 2005?

As for Naturalismo, it has shed away most of the harsh noise gratuity. I’ve never been too good at it, mostly because I found myself to work much better with subtraction than addition.

I’ve sort of gone back to recording things very closely, magnifying ambient, concrete sounds and putting them in contrast with synthesized ones. I’ve reduced setups, gone back to few variables and few controls, learned to do the most with the least elements, to push instruments and devices to their limit and to value quality over quantity. “Noise” as a concept has lost lots of interest to me since it has become a maximalist version of the signature rock guitar solo. It’s just boring for me.

As for Caligine, it changed as well. I started it as a collective attempt at mixing noise and acoustic instruments. But as I started moving from Italy, to China, to the Netherlands, to Hong Kong, it became difficult to find a regular space to jam. So Caligine slowly became a more intimate, psych-folk thing. I still think of it as a collective though, and I always try to pull somebody in and rework songs in different versions.

How often do you play live? Do you play in China or in Hong Kong, or both?

I’m not a weekly-live person, and I’m not particularly fond of performing. I find the formalities and the enforced atmosphere of the live show quite intimidating.

I would love to have people come and listen to me when I jam at home in the evening, I would love to have a porch and do it there, in fact, But that’s quite hard to do in a city like Hong Kong, so I try to play all the dates I get asked, usually once a month or so.

During the last few years I played mostly in China and Hong Kong, depending where I’m living. I rarely tour. I also play in Italy when I’m back there once in a while.

We’ve mentioned “noise” as a musical genre. For many people, it still conjures up extreme music, combined with unpleasant or offensive imagery. Is this an outdated idea? How has it evolved?

Yes, it is an outdated idea. Noise has been widely used as a compositional element in rock first, and mainstream music then. In Japan, where usually things happen with five years in advance as farce, even pop music flirts with noise – see the idol-noise mess that is BiS-kaidan, a record I loved.

I still like to listen to some noise releases by a few artists I like; John Wiese, Jason Crumer, Kazuma Kubota, Kevin Drumm and so on. But for me the whole confrontational attitude modeled on the examples of Whitehouse, Throbbing Gristle and the like has mostly become an empty shell and a clichéd form of posing.

The aesthetic of noise has evolved, but the direction I like is not the extremes of confrontational or offensive imagery, as much as exploring what noise really means–I’m thinking about the work on interferences by Ryoji Ikeda or Alva Noto, the commentaries on performer and instrument of Francisco López that plugs his laptop, hits “play” and leaves the stage, or about the attention to the layering and texturing of Yellow Swans, the limits of rock structures as explored by Sightings…

I mean, I think of noise as a really important and rich concept for musicians, in terms of interference, imperfection, uselessness, stupidity, blockade, etc…

How does your own musical outlook fit into this?

I make music. Seems an extremely difficult thing to hear from experimental musicians lately, yet they play shows and sell records and get reviewed by music critics. I think that after [John] Cage it is substantially ridiculous to claim to be doing “noise” or “sound.”

It’s really fun when I hear people claiming to do “sound” or “sound art.” If everything can be music, why is it yours just “sound,” why is it “art,” and why should I even spend time listening to it? It’s extremely arrogant, idealistic and sanitized idea of sound.

If a painter says “I make color,” I would think, “Aha, this guy works in a paint factory!” Everything and everyone makes sound,24/7. I can figure that out by myself and listen to it, without the need for specialized intermediaries.

So I would say I make music, as a pastime. It’s just about piecing together impressions of music that I like and fragments of memory or affect. I am interested in micro-sociological aspects of music–that is, how people get together, or isolate themselves, to make music and have others listen to them.

I mean, what I’m doing is extremely communitarian on a low-scale: I play with friends, and friends who like it can listen. This can today easily cross spatial boundaries and does not need any kind of local “scene.”

And we live in a globally connected world, which makes it easier, in some ways…

We’re all potentially connected, and this means that instead of making efforts in mediating local alliances with what we have in our district, we can single-pick allies all over the world, based on very specific tastes or ideologies.

But I would say that this makes everything more compartmentalized and easily self-reinforcing–why waste time in discussing harsh noise with your neighbor who likes glam metal when you can hook up with a guy who loves harsh noise in southern Alabama and start collaborating via e-mail.

True, it’s easy to get in touch with people you’ve might once have only dreamed of exchanging a letter with, but it’s also true that we have less and less free time to think about who to write to, and what to write them. So, well, I’m neither for nor against technologies of communication. Communication itself is a technology, and it’s up to people to use it effectively and productively.

You have written extensively on Chinese experimental music–how healthy are these sub-cultures in China now?

I guess the best way is to never simplify things. I don’t think that there is a Chinese experimental music subculture at the moment, as much as it is today hard to find national music genres or scenes.

It’s certainly misleading to seeing in China a thriving subculture of experimental musicians bustling about like the psychedelic Japan of the ’70s or similar extremely productive local scenes. Things are quite fluid and consumption runs along digital media so that yes, a lot of listeners and musicians in China have by the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s come in touch with all kinds of music,  and now we’re slowly coming in touch with what they have been doing of their own.

This includes more experimental stuff, harsh noise, ambient, free improvisation, lo-fi electronics and so on. There are some geographical centres, especially around big cities with venues and labels and individual projects, but I don’t see any cohesive movement toward a the claim for an identity or shared goals.

Usually, subcultures defined themselves in opposition to a mainstream culture. For what I’ve seen, I don’t think it would help at all to imagine experimental music in China as an oppositional endeavor. It is more of a constellation of individuals and small groups that experiment with the creation of identities and with their insertion in trans-national discourses.

In the past there have been two foci for experimental music in China–Shanghai and Beijing. Is this still true? People outside China tend to forget there are massive cities all across China–Shenzhen or Guangzhou or Guilin–do they have scenes too?

I guess it is still true that most of the attention is focused to what happens in Beijing, which has undeniably become the capital of cool, hipster China: traditionally the destination of artists from the entire country for reasons of visibility and zeitgeist, internationalized by a continuous injection of young expats with their baggage of youth cultures.

So it has become the cradle for an endless popping up of bands, venues, clubs and so on. And Shanghai, too follows suit. But people tend to forget that 97% of China is outside Beijing and Shanghai, and in scores of huge megalopolises, provincial centers, but also across smaller cities and villages, there are people who love music, listen to it, and make it their way. What is missing is somebody narrating those localities–I’m talking about the lack of local music critics and promoters.

Although you live and study in Hong Kong, in the past, a lot of your artistic focus is toward China. Is this a conscious decision, or simply a result of your relationships with Chinese musicians and artists?

I don’t have any special fascination with mainland China.  I released some records in collaboration with Chinese musicians, just because I was living there for a while, and I still have good friends around there.

One of the last releases was a collaboration with Sin:Ned (Dennis Wong), who has been making and writing about music in Honk Kong for quite a few years. As Caligine, today I often play as a duo with Alex Yiu, a great local violinist, and I’m hoping to expand the line-up with more Hong Kong musicians. So I can imagine how the next years will be probably more local in terms of releases and collaborations.

Which artists or musicians are particularly interesting in China and Hong Kong at the moment?

I love the work of Baishui. He’s been around for years and does great folk stuff, mixing local traditional songs to more classic neo-folk and minimalist structures.

As for more experimental stuff, I love the work of 唵 (Ong), a big collective of concrete, messy improvisations by the guys around the NOJIJI label–I don’t know if they’re still playing as a unit but their recordings are great.

As for harsh noise, there’s some young guys in Shanghai and Hangzhou putting out a great deal of releases under different projects (DINGCHENCHEN, Blowjob Euthanasia, 不活了) with a really rough edge that leaves the classical confrontational imagery of harsh noise and goes more in the direction of mash up, Internet culture and so on.

Lastly, Harshmallow Records is the outlet for the multiple personalities, side projects and collaborations of Li Huihui, a laptop musician from Shanghai who revels in idiosyncratic compositions between experimental electronics and a weird-pop sensibility.

In Hong Kong there’s also a lot of interesting musicians. Of all these, recently I jammed with Sherman, a guitar player that I feel really close to my improvisational style, and that keeps impressing me each time I see him live.


Caligine’s latest release is available here:

Monstres par Excès: ;

Nothing Out There:

The David Cunningham quote is taken from David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, (2004).



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