Dino is the stage name of Liao Ming-He, born in Taipei in 1976. He was active in the rock and roll scene by the time he was in middle school, and played bass for the band The Clippers in his later youth. He is also considered a pioneer in his use of primal analog electronics in noise music. Beyond this, he is an enthusiast of pu’er tea, gaoliang liquor, seal engraving, and freehand painting and calligraphy. His work is difficult to situate with the frameworks of modern or traditional art, although it is often classified as industrial noise (a counter-culture movement originating at the end of the 1970s)— but the artistry of his work is completely out of such a label’s reach. In an era when all art is either self-regulated or self-institutionalized, Dino seems to follow his own path, beyond the perimeters of modern art. First taking a look at the materials used in his life and work, and then at his approach to the objects that surround him, this interview seeks out Dino’s philosophy of sound art.
LIN: I’m thinking that with a musician as singular as yourself, delving into any discussion of so-called “creative concepts” or “creative methods” wouldn’t actually get us anywhere near the heart of your noise work. Would it be possible to start our conversation by way of the material? In other words, I’d like to approach your sound by looking at the objects that surround you, and meanwhile, at your relationship with these objects. By objects of course I mean not only musical instruments, but also food, drink, toys, and tools— and from there we can steer the conversation in other directions.
DINO: To have a serious discussion about the material must invoke one word: limitation. This applies to all things, including tobacco, alcohol, and tea. They all are subject to limitation; because things cannot be infinite. Why have I used the tools I have used for the last umpteen years? Practical limitations.
LIN: You are different from the typical modern artist. The typical artist works under the expectations of society, that the next piece will be better than the last. The works have to continually accumulate, the exhibition venues have to be increasingly upscale, the materials better and better, and the concepts more and more advanced. The typical modern artist tends to employ more materials and resources towards breaking through the limits of expression.
DINO: A while ago, I discussed a similar topic with my friend Huang Chi-yang. We were discussing room furnishings: how to arrange things on shelves or how to arrange storage racks. Chi-yang told me he would start in the middle of the room, fixing the things he really wanted in place and then expanding around these objects afterwards. I, on the other hand, would begin on the left and right sides, ensuring that they are secure, and then work in towards the middle of the room. Reality is always somewhat restricted. There always needs to be a framework.
LIN: I think Western modern music and art tend towards this idea of expanding outwards from the middle. I wouldn’t describe you as a modern or traditional musician. At first glance, you do not appear in the least bit traditional. But society expects the modern musician to continually change, whether in terms of content, concept, instrument, or the performative space.
DINO: Back to me— for me, doing things is like playing with a toy, or drinking tea. There will always be more equipment, or more suitable equipment. It’s not like I haven’t thought about using these. But after spending so much time and energy collecting this or that, it would seem like you never get the chance to drink the tea. I never acquired as many things as I would have liked— including equipment and CDs. Whether or not these records are any good— even now I can’t hear the distinction. Let me give you a familiar example, if I want a “mn-tsst mn-tsst” [mimics the sound of a techno beat], why would I spend money on this CD? What I am looking for is something that goes beyond this basic beat. It should be something that gives me immediate feedback… a kind of direct reflection or feedback.
LIN: Can you tell us a little about the sound equipment you first started using as a teenager? Including CDs, cassettes, and later on, electronic instruments. No matter how crude or simple, what significance did this equipment hold for you early on?
DINO: The earliest and most meaningful was naturally the effects pedal. This is because I am too lazy to practice. When rehearsing with the band I would often play the wrong sound. The effects pedal offered me a direct stimulation of sound, similar to “mn-tsst mn-tsst.” It provided me with my earliest sensual stimulation. For me, it doesn’t matter how classical the music is— if it is unable to excite me, or touch a raw nerve, then there’s no meaning.
LIN: For the sensual to be affected, the ears must first be affected. Otherwise, what is the point?
DINO: True. The first time I spent money on equipment was on a mixer… I noticed that in your critique of my work, you said there are no risks taken in the sound generation of my setup. This, of course, is far from how I imagine things. As I was just saying, I treat my setup as an instrument. After all, we’re talking about making music; there’s no such thing as no sound generation. Even though it [my setup] is not a bass guitar, I also don’t think of it in terms of electronic music. I’ve got a considerable amount of experimental wiring going on, but ever since I moved to Yangmingshan, I really treat it as an instrument. But back to the material: every instrument has its beauty— guitar, bass, violin, guqin, all of them. There are some talented people who see this, and they can grasp this point without straining themselves. They only need to invest a third of their energy, and they can improvise at will. Most improvisation ignores the rules, but it still follows a basic protocol. Take our hearing, for example. Even if we have heard all the music under the sun, there are a still a few fundamental biological habits that we cannot avoid. But improvisation is governed by a basic set of rules. It is a kind of communication between people, between those onstage and those offstage. Improvisation is not an artwork. There needn’t be a beautiful musical phrase or a special climax, but the listeners know there is a logic behind it. Or, to speak in classical terms, that there is ceremony behind it. I don’t refer to musical logic, but aural logic, the logic of hearing. Many forms of improvisation continue to break down these conventions, which I think is cool. Like noise. An awkward, unsettling issue right now is whether there is even intentionality in breaking down conventions. I used to say that any performance is an act of violence. The question is whether or not today, standing here, you acknowledge your actions. For a good performance, those onstage must possess an immense capacity for violence. Improvisation is often uncomfortable for the listener, but then again, the majority of performances lack this capacity for violence. The problem is with the listener, who can only sit there, stranded without actually feeling violated. What this engenders in itself can turn into another kind of violence.
XU:: Passive violence.
LIN: A phenomenon of democracy.
DINO: I don’t think a performance should have that kind of ambiance.
XU: What is violent?
DINO: Compliance. To subdue people, to tame them.
XU: What comes after compliance?
DINO: That’s really difficult to explain clearly.
XU: Is the setting a kind of improvisation, a kind of violence?
DINO: It’s not possible for the setting itself to be improvised. I’m the type of person who cannot improvise. My personality is to think things through in advance.
XU: All these things can be controlled. Let’s say, you make a sound— is everything planned in advance?
DINO: That you say this reminds me of something. Chi-Wei tells me that for the last 20 years I have been making the same song. That everything is the same, even the set design. The state I am in when I go onstage is also pretty much identical. If the same equipment isn’t at hand, I simply go borrow that equipment.
XU: What kind of violence is in your live performances?
DINO: I don’t consider people to be human beings. All I require is what I find aurally stimulating.
XU: You don’t consider how the audience might react?
DINO: Correct. There is only me, and me alone. This is especially true of my performances last year, when I never felt more confident. I didn’t even feel the need for sound-check. I was in the zone immediately. Of course, it might not have sounded so good, but as long as I can find the right sounds, I am happy. Nothing else enters my mind.
XU: But I remember one time, at a show Zhang You-Sheng and those guys organized— you brought a group of people for a conversation….
DINO: All in all, that was still a performance. There’s no way getting around that. I just wanted to bring them; I really didn’t give it much thought. I could have asked Jun-Yang to play the erhu, but that would have just been for appearance’s sake.
XU: What did you all talk about?
DINO: Drinking. At first it was just the three of us, and later Dawang showed up. Then slowly the topic of discussion encroached different themes. Mostly, we ended up talking about AV actresses, which left everybody feeling more at ease.
XU: You behaved as you do everyday, just onstage.
DINO: It’s the same with other performances.
LIN: Do you consider performance a kind of ritual?
DINO: No, not here.
LIN: Could you explain a little more clearly what is a ritual and what isn’t a ritual?
DINO: The reason I can’t call it ritual is because there is the issue of belief. There is no way I can carry out ritual in such a state. I have my own rituals, but certainly not onstage. I do believe one thing, though: no matter if you’re talking religion or any other belief system, contact with people must have value. Everyone will interact differently. This is how I have chosen. It allows me to believe I have something. I can go out, maybe, say, to discuss tea or alcohol with others, and I have this to hold on to when with them. You need to have something to live in this world. It needn’t be this precise, but there you have it, basically.
XU: So what is ritual for you?
DINO: There’s no way I can explain. It’s impossible to communicate.
XU: The guqin and mixer are two of your instruments. Do you ever perform with the guqin?
DINO: Earlier, I was talking about limitation. Whether in reality or spiritually, the guqin is crucial for me to rise above limitation. In material terms, nothing is missing.
XU: So, the guqin, your seal engravings, your calligraphy…
DINO: They’re completely different from one another.
XU: How are they different?
DINO: A few years ago, I started engraving seals, which is actually a kind of extremely confined situation. You have to study ancient characters and everything has to follow a particular standard. It’s also very difficult to carry this out in front of people, because it is all about entering the self. At the time I was greatly interested in seals, as the epitome of isolation. Later I wouldn’t dare to engrave again. My sight began to deteriorate, and I became so melodramatic that I eventually found myself unbearable. Now I will still engrave on occasion, and of course read the classics. But I’m no longer as hardcore as before, when there were character copybooks strewn all about.
XU: So there is a difference between the guqin and tea?
DINO: Yes. The guqin had something I needed, for it was something confined and also extraordinarily meticulous. Every finger movement has to be precise; you can’t be whimsical or play at random. The world is similarly confined, but the world has already met my primary needs. It’s been about a year now, and I’m feeling more and more elated; I don’t feel anything negative at all. It was wonderful then, how they blindly followed the classics. So much better than now.
XU: And this teapot, then? What is it to you?
DINO: It’s a tool for exchange. The reason I got into the Chinese classics was because I got into teapots.
LIN: But back to the guqin. Do you think it is necessary to train under a master?
DINO: I’m still wondering myself, but overall I do think it is necessary. But I’m not talking about entering the academy— the master and disciple system— as you shouldn’t be forced. If you study under a master, then you have to accept that he is always right. I find it intolerable when people search for a teacher only to begin questioning them— that’s incomprehensible to me. I firmly believe that finding a teacher is a blessing. The first guqin I bought was probably around nine years ago. I had gone out to buy tea, but ran into someone selling a guqin— I thought that since I was presented with an opportunity to buy a guqin I could actually afford, I might as well go ahead and diligently learn. But it had been sitting there the last eight years. I only started seriously playing last year. At first, I would only play over at Ling-Fan’s place, and she was interested in buying a guqin herself. About a week later she invited us to go to a guqin maker’s place. I was thinking that at a party like that smoking and alcohol would be a no-go, so I planned to pop in, say hello, and then head somewhere else for a drink. But as soon as I entered, the host offered me a glass and a cigarette. Even if I was crap at the guqin, I ended up feeling relaxed. And so I’ve been at it for a year.
LIN: Do you think there is a way to trace the origins of this? I don’t refer to any doctrine, or to the unbending old ways. I refer, of course, to you and you alone.
DINO: The problem with a lot of music is not about skill. This has been amply explained already, but simply put, young people have no hope of playing. Anyone can show off their skills, but without any flavor, and everybody seems to be strumming out the same thing. The score of a guqin is a record of movements. When using a particular movement, you must first regard your self. Since ancient times, the master-student tradition has it that individuals cannot achieve this by themselves. A teacher normally attends to this, and one must learn from the teacher. Tradition is typically against the beginner. This applies not only to China, but also the rest of the world— it’s not possible to demand creative work from a beginner. Ancient witchcraft was the same. You did what you had to.
LIN: I have another question, following on what you just said. What is so-called innovation?
DINO: This is another thing I’m not able answer. Innovation is something I’ve never believed in. Unlike “tracing origins,” I simply am repelled by the term “innovation.” Because, whenever I am asked this type of question, I always find it difficult to let go.