Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation

Ma Yue
A niche music genre uses textured layers instead of lyrics and melodies to create an atmosphere of calm and contemplation.
Ma Yue

Tuesday evening is one of the treasured moments of the week for Li Mingyu, an independent Shanghai musician.

Li boils water at home and waits for his music partner Chen Jianhui, who prefers the nickname Gogo. Tea is served upon his arrival, and after some brief chatting, the duo gets down to what brings them together – ambient music.

Li plays classical guitar, the synthesizer, flute and some folk instruments. Gogo owns a musical instrument store in Minhang District and even makes niche instruments like the Australian didgeridoo and the Middle Eastern ney flute. His expertise is percussion.

Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation
Ti Gong

Li Mingyu (right) and Gogo perform ambient music, which emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical

Ambient music is a genre that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure and rhythm. The term was coined by British musician Brian Eno, who helped popularize the genre in the 1970s. The music may lack lyrics and melody. Its textural layers of sound often create a sense of calm and contemplation.

Ambient music draws on elements of classical, avant-garde, folk and jazz music. Derided by some as simply elaborate "elevator music," the genre has produced an array of name practitioners. French composer Erik Satie dabbled in its early form in the early 20th century. More contemporary practitioners include Max Richter, Julianna Barwich and William Basinski.

Earlier this year, Li, Gogo and a painter friend named Tu Hua established a new ambient music band called Cheng, which means "clear and transparent" in Chinese. The band combines ambient music with visual content. Audiences at live concerts may be presented with video clips or pictures. They may even listen while watching Tu create a new painting on the stage.

Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation
Ti Gong

Some of the musical instruments Li and Gogo play

"Visuals help audiences get more absorbed in the atmosphere we create with music," Li told Shanghai Daily.

"In this fast-paced era, it's a luxury when people can slow down and take a break from the daily routine," he added.

"We don't expect our audiences to do serious thinking in a concert. We just want them to unload burdens and anxiety. A bowl must be empty to be used to serve good tea."

In Shanghai, ambient music remains a niche genre. There are no more than five professional ambient bands in the city. But the music does have a devoted following, however small. Next month, an ambient performance labeled as a "music therapy" concert will be staged at the Shanghai Concert Hall.

Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation
Ti Gong

Ambient music leaves audience with wider space.

Li said he is happy if the music can help soothe nerves jangled by the coronavirus pandemic. But for him personally, it's a means of self-expression.

Li, 35, used to work in aircraft maintenance, playing musical instruments and writing ballads in his leisure time.

"After exploring independent and psychedelic ballads, I found that I could no longer fully explain myself with words or lyrics," he said. "I needed more abstract methods. I started to rely more on musical tones and sounds, finding my comfort spot in ambient music."

Li's musical creations are inspired by his personal experiences, the world of nature and literature.

"Compared to traditional songs and ballads, ambient music leaves audience with wider space," said Li. "An instrument is an extension of my body. I express myself by playing, while audiences create their own understanding of the music by drawing on their own personal experiences and emotions. It's a kind of communication."

Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation
Ti Gong

Gogo plays the Jew's harp.

Li met Gogo at a jazz music competition in 2015. Together with another two friends, they established a four-member ambient music band called Qixu in 2016.

The band members were blessed with steady income after Qixu became the resident band of a hotel in Pudong. They performed two evenings a week, and also gave performances at the invitation of art galleries and other event organizers.

"The hotel gave us the freedom to decide what kind of music we wanted to perform," Li recalled. "Over two-thirds of our programs were improvisational. We enhanced our skills and improved our musical cohesion in those years."

Li quit his airport job in 2019 to devote full time to music. However, the outbreak of coronavirus ended the hotel gig, and one of the band members left the city to return to his hometown in south China's Hainan Province. Though a replacement was recruited, the band never fully regained its former status.

Li started to give guitar lessons. Gogo continued online sales of instruments he made.

Provided by Li Mingyu.

"While waiting for a full post-pandemic recovery of performances, we had the idea of establishing a new band," said Li. "Unlike Qixu, which had already formed its style and performing pattern, the new band Cheng would allow Gogo and me to get closer to our personal creative motives. The enriched visuals have expanded those possibilities."

Neither Li nor Gogo expects to make a fortune from the new band, but it's hard to put a price on self-fulfillment.

"I believe that ambient music will attract more followers, especially after the impact of the pandemic, because it is sincere, relaxing and touches the soul," said Li. "For us, playing and exploring music are a lifestyle."

Music that creates an atmosphere of contemplation
Ti Gong

For Li and Gogo, playing and exploring music are a lifestyle.

Cheng and its members can be reached by e-mail:

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