Underground Experimental Music in Taiwan
Updated: Oct 29
Over the past two decades, the way we listen, purchase, and believe in music have shifted significantly. People often find themselves celebrating derivative throwbacks, regardless of the redundant rehash. In an increasingly globalized post post post world, music lovers find the cluster of inspiration, cultural difference and intrinsic spirituality in South-East Asia more valuable than any tangible commodity. In the isolated small island of Taiwan in Pacific Asia, there are significant developments in experimental and underground movements currently happening that are the focus of this article.
In Senko Issha, by Etang Chen
Senko Issha is a record shop featuring both 2nd-hand vinyl records and newer releases of experimental music from around the world. It is a record label with 14 releases including local noise figure Dino, his duo group Kaoliang Brothers with Yong Yandsen from Kuala Lumpur, the split of Dawang Huang and Japanese noise legend K2 and Otomo Yoshihide to name a few. Senko Issha also organizes live concerts including Umezu Kazutoki CHIBI-BRASS, Utamono Sisters, Hibushibire, Sax Ruins, Tomokawa Kazuki, Seijiro Murayama, Darren Moore/Hirose Jinji/Nakamura Toshimaru Trio, MELT-BANANA, jailbird Y, Saint Sloth Machine and FEN.
Umezu Kazutoki CHIBI BRASS Live in Taipei, by Etang Chen
From its inception in 2015, Senko Issha has launched a regular event Senko Issha Gigs at its basement. Many famous musicians have participated in the program such as Motoki Yoshitori, Makoto Oshiro, Game of Patience, Umezu Kazutoki, Tim Olive, Paal Nillsen-Love, Christian Meaas Svendsen, Yong Yandsen and Chino Shuichi. Senko Issha Gigs put local musicians on stage with visiting experimental music giants and consequently influenced the local music scene.
Motoki at Senko Issha Gigs, by Etang Chen
Senko Issha is also a place where people come to hang out, drink, cook and discuss music, film, photography and more. Its influence in the local scene can be attested by several local musicians starting their career there. Bei San Q Nan is one such musician. He learned about using contact mics to make noise in Senko Issha and is now widely known by his performance in a university student music competition. Bei San Q Nan has lately turned his interests to the minimalism of the early Éliane Radigue's ARP 2500 synthesis music but using the feedback of his contact mic instead. Chia-Chun Xu, known as a harsh noise musician under the name Berserk, is another young talent who spent his early career in Senko Issha.
Dino and the no-input mixing board workshop
No-Input workshop, by JAC
Dino is a significant figure in the Taiwanese noise scene and has been actively performing since the 1990s. Compared to his impressive career of over twenty-five years, there is little public documentation about his ephemeral practice. However, in 2019 he launched a monthly No-Input Mixing Board workshop for those who are interested in the instrument. Less than one year later, a no-input mixing army based in Taipei has developed. The most exciting new figure in the noise scene is the Taipei based painter Anteng Tsai. He was one of the earliest participants in the No-Input workshop. His approach to the music is related to his paintings but instead uses sound to draw in space. On the technical side, he controls his no-input system like a modular synthesizer which contrasts the chaotic approach common to no-input feedback.
Anteng Tsai, by Etang Chen
Another one worth mentioning is Gam Zuei. He is a designer and photographer and one of the early members of the No-Input workshop. Unlike the exquisite style of Anteng Tsai, he sticks to the fundamentals by rarely using pedals to augment his no-input system. He recently started collaborating with artists from other cities such as Yu-Chiao Yang. Other artists such as multimedia and installation artists Tzu Ni and Sheryl Cheung, laptop musician Chiyou Dean, field recordist and sound designer Yen-Ting Hsu have benefitted from learning no-input mixing board and have applied these techniques to their own projects.
Chia-Chun Xu and Outer Pulsation
Outer Pulsation, by Etang Chen
Around almost the same time as the no-input workshop, the young harsh noise musician Chia-Chun Xu launched a monthly outdoor guerrilla noise gig Outer Pulsation in public underpasses. The event provides both experienced and newer local musicians with a platform to develop improvisation skills, experiment in different spaces and collaborate with local and international musicians.
Indie Music Scene Crossover
Jyun-Ao Caesar's move from indie to experimental music also brought some musicians and audiences into the scene. Lala Reich started her percussionist path in Jyun-Ao Caesar's Saint Sloth Machine, turning to improvisation in 2018. Influenced by her mentor Seijiro Murayama, she is now one of the few musicians in Taiwan that play free improvisation and free jazz.
Lala Reich and Otomo Yoshihide at KLEX, by Etang Chen
Another up and coming artist is XIn-Yun Cai. She has played in indie bands for years and joined the no-input mixing workshop in 2019. However, unlike other participants, she continues to play her own music with either her guitar or her no-input system. Her music can be considered as a harsh noise wall within the depth of Aube.
Xin-Yun Cai at Outer Pulsation, by Etang Chen
In the South
Not everything happens in Taipei. In the south of Taiwan, there is a robust experimental music scene and activities mainly occurring around Ting-Shuo Hear Say and Cochlea Lab. Established in 2016, Ting-Shuo is an organization run by Alice Hui-Sheng Chang and Nigel Brown based in Tainan. In its early days, Ting-Shuo was (and still is) an open space for performances and workshops of experimental music. In the last two years, they have engaged with a diverse community through encouraging participation and encounters with contemporary listening and sound creation practices from around the world.
Ting Shuo Hear Say
Beginning in 2012, the Cochlea Lab was funded by a group of experimental music fans and musicians based in Kaohsiung. The collective includes the improvising musician Fangyi Liu, storyteller Yu-Chiao Yang, record shop owner Bardo Pond, Runner Chang and others. In 2013, they launched a monthly experimental music series Cochlea Gigs mainly (but not only) focusing on free improvisation. Since then, Cochlea gigs have presented many experimental musicians such as Ignaz Schick, Chino Shuichi, Chie Nagai, Simon Frank, Izumi Ose, Tetsuya Hori and many local musicians. In 2017, they also organized the Cochlea International Experimental Music Festival with performances and workshops featuring John Russell, Carl Stone, Tania Chen, Chia-Chun Xu and Sheryl Cheung. At present, Cochlea Gigs continue as the main activities in the experimental music scene in the south of Taiwan.
Be ni ya ben
The Cochlea Lab launched a workshop series Be Ni Ya Ben to provide a public platform for music lovers and musicians to share their experiences on listening and creating. The regular members include Fangyi Liu, Yu-Chiao Yang, Hsiangyu Ku, Qin Yi Chen, Chen En He, Runner Chan and more. Recently, they have also participated in Yan Jun's miji66 series.
Nothing but individuals in the middle
DJ REX, Jun-Yang Li and Xiao Liu
Taichung in central Taiwan doesn't really have an experimental music scene. However, there are several experimental musicians based in Taichung. Two such examples are turntablist DJ REX, who has been playing alone for more than a decade, and self-taught free-jazz saxophonist Xiao Liu. Since 2019, Taiwan's legendary painter Jun-Yang Li found his interests in self-made instruments and started to play experimental music with DJ REX and Xiao Liu. They have just now released several tracks, titled Sù, on BandCamp.
The connection to the ground
The aforementioned underground activities are mostly independent of the documented information about the experimental music scene in Taiwan. However, every individual participant has been strongly influenced by current and past events. It is commonly agreed that the first and second noise movements happened in the early 90s. Chiwei Lin, Fujui Wang, Pei, Jan-Wen Lu, Dino were the first to introduce experimental music to Taiwan. Additionally, punk/industry bands like LTK from the hardcore scene were also influential. In the first decade of the 21st century, the 3rd noise movement began, and The Center of Art and Technology was established.
According to the sound traces cultural archive which documents music scenes in Taiwan, early Taiwanese composers made four-channels musique concrète performance in Taipei. However, only their contributions in folk songs compositions were recorded. One artist rarely publicly mentioned is Dajun Yao. His post-concrete podcasts and the group Recordez including Rio, Wei and Wolfenstein made musique concrète widely known in Taiwan. i/O Lab and the LSF were also important at that time.
From the early 2010s, Kandala Records was formed (but sadly inactive since 2016) and made improvisation music more widely known in both underground and academia. Shih-Yang Lee is by far the most active improvising musician to emerge from the academic community. Lee has helped bridge the gap between the academic and the underground experimental scenes by bringing improvised music to the communities of traditional instrumental performers and dancers. Aside from his contributions musically, he has launched a series of improvised music and dance performances and organised with Nicole’s Creative Artists Agency. He has organised several improvised music gigs and the Taiwan International Improvised Music Festival that consequently led the connection between LaoBan Records and the presented underground communities.
In the last two years, the event Noise Assembly, mainly curated by Chee-Wai Yuen, also helped the interactions between the underground community with the sound art, electronic music and pop music scenes. Most recently, there is a new organisation Confluence Experience formed by noise musician Chia-Chun Xu, multi-media artists Tzu Ni, Daoyuan Cheng and some others from the electronic dark ambience music scene.
The experimental music movements in Taiwan can be traced back to the 90s. However, there are noticeable chasms between each generation. It's hard to find a past context for the current activities (aside from Dino), and nobody seems to know why that is. In recent years, people have been trying to (re)construct their own roots of experimental music in Taiwan to piece together their collective histories.
About the author
Jyun-Ao Caesar’s music can be described as an approach toward the composition of Pan-Musique Concrète as proposed by Dajuin Yau. His experience with signal processing, analogue amplification, and field recording, as well as his knowledge of space and time led to his adoption of the instrument.
He is also a member of Saint Sloth Machine. His compositions for the group aim to represent a certain contemplation of humanism and modernity in a non-realist way.
As an improviser, he has played with Dino, Motoki Yoshinori, Paal Nilssen-Love, Otomo Yoshihide, Yong Yandsen, Rabito Arimoto, Park Daham, Kyosuke Terada, Lala Reich, Thierry Monnier and some others not named.