Ten Years of China: Interview with Daniel Beban

Dan Beban a.k.a. Baba Rossa is the wearer of many hats (both costume and otherwise), a prolific Wellington-based artist, organiser, documentarian, DIY master… To add to that, he’s just curated his first exhibition The Middle Kingdom: Made in China 2002 – 2017 at Audio Foundation in Auckland. Kiwese zoned in to find out more.

I’d just returned from a year abroad teaching in a village in the West Midlands, where the live music experience was largely formed of local rugby chants and projectile-pint-chugged vomit. Upon return to Aotearoa as a bewildered 19-year-old, I stumbled across a quartet of red-cloaked creatures in a dusty barnyard in the backwaters of Bulls, emitting strange pulsating rhythms with homemade wooden pianos and extravagant hats. That set at Campus A Low Hum 2010 was one of Orchestra of Spheres first shows. My mind was blown.

Orchestra of Spheres at the Barn Stage, Campus A Low Hum, 2010 | Photo: Kiwese

Like many who studied with the late great New Zealand composer Jack Body, Dan’s interest in East Asian music and instruments has become a life long passion.

Orchestra of Spheres are a group of chameleonic musicians with a reputation for their buzzy blend of dance music, free jazz and DIY costuming – a band of mysterious alien identities draped in $2 Shop costume jewellery and recycled Pak N’ Save bags who can rock Indonesian percussion into Angolan flavoured rhythms, harmonise synth jabs with three-part tonal chanting. This is not world music. This is otherworld music.

Dan’s deep-diving travels across Asia, especially Mainland China, could provide some background to Orchestra of Spheres’ aesthetic.

Baba Rossa performing with Orchestra of Spheres | Photo courtesy of Dan Beban

I first met Dan outside his old venue Fred’s (the Frederick Street Light and Sound Exploration Society). Chalkboard gig listings, koha entry, a beer vending machine – Fred’s was a curious venue in the centre of town; an old Anglican Chinese church converted into a community-minded space for experimental music.

Fred’s was parallel to Haining Street, essentially Wellington’s first Chinese slum, well-documented for opium and gambling dens, the image of “yellow peril” rhetoric. My grandmother lived in a tiny shared attic room on Haining Street when she first arrived in Wellington in the 1930s. Decades later, I’d be dangling my legs off the stairs round the corner at Fred’s, sipping on dubiously concealed vino and listening to a Japanese noise guitarist.


Fred’s. In 2012, Fred’s, alongside many other historic Wellington buildings, was yellow sticker’ed (the post-Christchurch earthquake equivalent of China’s 拆) and set for demolition. | Photo source: Sound Explorers.

Dan’s first trip to China was in 2002, entering China at the border of Laos, into the elephant territory of Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan, gradually working his way through the rural areas of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu over three months.

“I’m always up for an adventure,” he says, “ever since I was a little kid I remember looking at pictures of far off places and thinking ‘I wonder what it’s like there?'”

With that attitude in mind, the Spheres put their faith in Kiwese in 2015 to help organise and tour manage them on their first China Tour, despite the fact I had literally no experience.

That tour was just one chapter in Dan’s long history with performing, creating and documenting China, a ten year story which he has now curated into his first exhibition of works at Audio Foundation in Auckland.


KIWESE: Can you describe your experience in China in 2002 vs. your experience in 2017?

DB: In 2002, my impression of China during that trip was of a very rural place with many diverse ethnic groups, very old school, generally pretty poor and undeveloped. It took days and days to get around in the rural areas over mountain roads by bus or walking.  It was a wonderful trip and actually it’s only been in the last couple of months through putting this exhibition together, that I’ve revisited the photos and sound recordings that I made in 2002 and that’s put into focus the huge changes that have happened in China in the last 15 years.

The big recent drive of urban modernisation in China was only just getting into swing then, so cities like Chengdu were like massive work sites. My more recent experiences in China have mostly been in megacities like Beijing, Chongqing, Chengdu. It seems like a very different world in many ways, hyper modern, very developed. Yet there’s always layers of the old and new.

Dan & Ji YInan Chengdu

Dan trading records with Ji Yinan 季一楠 of Hiperson, Chengdu 2015 | Photo by Kiwese

How did The Middle Kingdom exhibition come about, what is on display and how did you curate it all together?

I had worked on a bunch of ideas for sound sculptures when I was doing an art residency in Beijing in 2016 and wanted to develop these further. That got me thinking about the various trips I’ve had in China over quite a few years, so I thought I’d combine sculptures with more ethnographic material – around 200 photos + audio recordings that I have made over several trips. I’ve also included some material from other people including a collection of experimental music gig posters from Zhu Wenbo (朱文博), some video of Chinese sound artists like Li Jianhong (李剣鴻) and Li Yangyang (李杨漾), and the doco you made when Orchestra of Spheres toured China in 2015.  So the exhibition is really my impressions and abstracted experiences from times I’ve spent in China since 2002.  All the materials for the sculptures were sourced in China, mostly on Taobao!


Chongqing. Photo by Dan Beban.

The main sculpture is called ‘Water Qing’. It’s dedicated to the memory of Jack Body, a wonderful composer and my old teacher. Jack had a very long relationship of collaborations in China. The sculpture uses 16 stainless steel metal bowls and water that drips into each bowl through drip tubes that regulate the flow of water. There’s contact mics that amplify the sound and and LED lights that reflect the patterns of the water onto the ceiling. Over the course of the month-long exhibition the bowls fill up and the pitch and tone of the drips change. So it’s essentially a really long composition that takes a whole month to complete.

There’s another sculpture which uses really small usb mini-speakers, glued to the wall with really low frequency sound waves being played back through them. Because the speakers are so small you can’t hear the low sounds, but the speaker cones move as they try to reproduce the low tones. So I’ve put sunflower seeds on each of the speakers which vibrate and create an acoustic sound texture. The weird thing about these speakers is that, while playing the low tones with the sunflower seeds, you can still put higher frequency sounds through them and hear the sounds. So I collected a whole bunch of people’s dreams – ie. I asked friends to record their dreams as soon as they woke up, on their mobile phones. So you have certain croaky quality of voice, and often whispered, still half asleep. It’s eery and weird, and thing I like about those recordings is that there isn’t that filter of your awake self that analyses what you’re saying. It’s just descriptions of an experience, which seems somehow more truthful and real than a considered statement. The dream recordings are in Chinese and English, made by me, several friends in Beijing, and a few people in NZ. I call the sculpture ‘Dream Speakers’.

The third sculpture uses electric fans and pvc pipes. I’ve adapted the fans so that there’s just the middle turning part without any blades, and I’ve attached some fabric which spins around and brushes past a bunch of pvc pipes which are hung from the ceiling. The pipes are different lengths, so they produce different notes. With a whole bunch of them going they make a changing drone texture. I put this in the stairwell of the Audio Foundation, which is a resonant space, so that’s what people hear where they first come into the space. I call this one ‘Sheng’, which is the name of an instrument that’s played in the south of China. That instrument is made of lengths of bamboo, sometimes they can be really long, and just make one note.


Chongqing. Photo by Dan Beban.

I was thinking about what to call the exhibition and had several ideas. The Middle Kingdom – which as I understand it is the English translation of Zhonguo (the name of China in Chinese) – seemed to fit best. It’s super simple and also has the connotation of describing an internal world, like the phrase from the the 13th Floor Elevators song ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’, which comes from the bible. I don’t really know what I’m trying to say with the exhibition, I operate more on an intuitive level, but it’s something to do with coming to terms with the internal kingdom through experiences of the external kingdom! It’s also just about sharing some of my experiences of China, and the images, film and sound recordings might be of interest to people who don’t know much about China.

“While it’s not always pleasant, I think the experience of getting out of your usual comfort zone is really important. I love getting lost somewhere and seeing where it might lead me.”

dan littlenew

U M U and VJ Little New, NUART Festival Chengdu 2016 | GIF by Kiwese

Why is the exhibition in Auckland rather than your hometown Wellington?

The exhibition is at the Audio Foundation which is a venue and gallery space in Auckland. They have sound art exhibitions every couple of months, and the director of AF, Jeff Henderson, who is a very good friend of mine, asked me last year about doing an exhibition. It’s the first exhibition that I’ve put together. I’d like to exhibit some of this stuff in Wellington at some point.

Can you briefly talk about your Xinjiang trip with Jonny?

It was 2007 and Jonny had been living in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia for a year. I was passing through on the way back to NZ from Europe and stopped off for a month. We headed for Xinjiang on the train and travelled around the Taklamakan desert and around the border of Kazakstan. I love that part of China. Uighur music is really amazing, especially as a guitarist because they have a whole lot of string instruments which sound incredible. That trip was another awesome adventure – we got to some pretty far flung places.

Xinjiang, 2007 | Photos by Dan Beban | Courtesy of the artist

I’ve had a bag of undeveloped films sitting around for years and years, and I’d forgotten what was on them, so I took them in to get developed and a couple of rolls of films were slides of that trip. So I set up a slide projector for the exhibition – it also makes a cool clicking clacking sound as it goes around. I haven’t been back to Xinjiang since 2007, and the political situation there now is really worrying. It seems that a lot of Uighur culture is being repressed, and the people don’t have a voice or any political power.

What continues to draw you back to China?

China is so interesting, full of contradictions. I find it a seriously frustrating place at times, yet I seem to be drawn back there. I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve made some good friends there now, and I’ve been collaborating with lots of interesting musicians, so music keeps pulling me back I guess. I’m hoping to be able to bring some of the musicians that I’ve worked with to NZ later this year.

Cheers Dan!

From the event page:

Daniel Beban first travelled to China in 2002 on an overland trip en route to Europe. He stayed 3 months in the backwaters of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu provinces with a minidisc recorder and a camera. He’s been back to China for four other extended trips, performing, making and exploring. This exhibition is a collection of work made in China over these 15 years. It includes sound installations, audio, video and photographs.

Daniel Beban is a musician and sound artist who lives in Wellington. He performs on a number of different instruments in groups including Orchestra of Spheres, Imbogodom, The Stinging Nettles, Micro Soft Voices and UMU. He builds sound sculptures and invented instruments out of found objects and recycled materials. Through his work as a radio sound engineer, Daniel has experimented at length with reel-to-reel tape machines. The tape machine has formed the basis of much of his electronic work.

In 2009 Daniel founded the The Frederick Street Sound and Light Exploration Society and was director of the associated venue Fred’s. Fred’s was an important centre for creative music and arts in Wellington from 2009–2012. After it closed the group opened the Pyramid Club, a venue for experimental music and sound.


Opens – Thursday 3 May, 5.30pm (w. refreshments from Liberty Brewing Company)
Hours – Tuesday – Saturday, 12.00pm – 4.00pm.
Closes – Saturday 2 June 4.00pm.