IN MY EARS #10: Li Daiguo’s Rural Chops
Li Daiguo - “1”
In My Ears is a weekly music column by Josh Feola 赵识, Beijing-based writer and musician and founder of pangbianr.com
As it’s December I’ve started thinking about my favorite or most listened to albums of the year. Near the top would be Li Shurui, a stunning solo pipa album that Li Daiguo quietly self-released in April. Li, who is originally from the US and moved to China in 2004, had a prolific year in general. In addition to Li Shurui, he also released Free World Music, a fantastic duo album with Brooklyn-based trombonist Rick Parker, and has a few other finished recordings sitting in his archives, waiting to find a good label.
But Li Shurui shines among Li Daiguo’s accomplishments this year. He’s known as a polymath performer and improviser; I’ve seen him confidently shred on pipa, cello, mbira, and beatboxing. For this album, though, he focuses on a core instrument: pipa. He plays this old instrument in very new ways, adopting an all-over playing style and alternative picking and strumming techniques that made me think often of guitar improvisers like Derek Bailey and John Fahey when first digesting the album. The opening track, which you can stream for free on Daiguo’s website, is particularly arresting, a tempestuous tour through the artist’s self-styled chops, shaped by his early training on violin and fiddle and interest in Bluegrass as a child growing up in rural Oklahoma.
When I interviewed Li Daiguo earlier this year for an article about Li Shurui, he told me about his earliest days as a musician: “The first things that I did that were not Classical. I was studying bluegrass fiddle, and then I started studying erhu. And then at that time I was also getting into rock music, just figuring out how to play electric bass, playing songs that I listened to with a band and stuff. It's the same as everyone else, when you hear an instrument or a stye and you think it's sick, you take the time to go find a teacher for that style. It's just as simple as that.”
Daiguo received a scholarship to study Classical violin at a university in California, but he wasn’t satisfied with the stylistic limitations the conservatory context placed on his music. One of his professors told him that he should ignore other genres and styles or else he would become a “dabbler” — a hobbyist playing around with different styles, but not a “serious” musician in any one field.
Rather than hang around the professional world of conservatory musicians in the US, Daiguo moved to Chengdu after graduating in 2004, and eventually fell in with a crowd of musicians and fans there. He began to study the pipa in earnest, slowly developing his own style and frequently collaborating with like-minded experimental artists around the country, such as Yan Jun and Wu Na. He now lives in Dali for most of the year, back in a rural environment where he rehearses daily and spends time with his partner, whom Li Shurui is named after, and their young daughter.
When I spoke with him earlier this year, Daiguo told me that he feels Li Shurui, with its simultaneously Classical and avant-garde sensibility, is the very beginning of what he is comfortable in calling his own unique voice on the pipa. “Those are set compositions, like the culmination of a chapter for my development of the pipa, and it's really only the beginning,” he says of the album’s eight tracks. “It's the years of work that I've spent thinking about the pipa, thinking about what it is, what my relationship with it is. It's sort of like a marker. Maybe some people will be interested, and I'm pretty sure it's very different from any other pipa album, but for me it's really like the first baby step. It's taken a long time to find that voice and develop it into a coherent album. I'm gonna keep developing this for decades, that's my plan.”
Check the link below to hear Li Daiguo’s Li Shurui, one of the most inventive and brilliant instrumental albums released this year.
Li Daiguo: http://lidaiguo.com
Li Daiguo (Douban): https://site.douban.com/love.betternonsequitur.com/
Li Shurui (album): https://yoopay.cn/pay/01855562
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.