Artist Interview: 王阳明
王阳明 is a German producer living abroad in Beijing, China named Markus; who produces a unique form of vaporwave called “outsider ambient,” which is based on Chinese traditional philosophy and mysticism. Sunbleach corresponded with Markus to get more information on his project and philosophy – especially in how it relates to the formation of art in the modern age.
S: Hey Markus! Welcome to Sunbleach, and thanks for “meeting” with me through the Internet! There’s so much I’d like to discuss, not necessarily just about the music but also yourself. What was your inspiration for studying Sinology and Philosophy?
M: Hey Dylan, thanks for having me on here, today! Since I was a little child, probably four or five, I always wanted to learn Chinese, since it used all those characters that were pictures but also words at the same time. So, when I was in fifth grade, the best friend of my mother gave me her Chinese book and I started studying at home (and failed). In high school, I had the chance to major in Mandarin, so I took that chance, which eventually led to me studying Sinology. I actually got into Philosophy through the same person that got me into more alternative Western music. One day, back in tenth grade, I went over my tumblr dash and found that song by Zola Jesus called “In Your Nature,” which got me really hooked. So I did some research and realized that she used to study Philosophy and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The next day I bought her album and a book by Schopenhauer. Suddenly, there was a whole new field of ideas, and I got a book by Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition) a little later, which gave me the last push to really get into Philosophy. And now, I’m double-majoring and double-minoring in Sinology and Philosophy, which I’m kind of trying to combine, so it eventually lead me to Chinese Philosophy. (At first I only wanted to learn more Mandarin and become a German teacher in China haha.)
S: You produce “outsider ambient” and vaporwave music under the moniker “王阳明.” How does that translate to English, in both a literal sense and thematically?
M: The name “王阳明” is actually the name of a Chinese philosopher called Wang Yangming or Wang Shouren (Chinese people used to get new names when they turned 18 or sometimes also after they died), who was a Neo-Confucian in the 15th and 16th century. He’s actually depicted on the cover of my release “屯蒙.” Confucianism is based on the five classics (sometimes six, but the one on music is lost for good), which include the Yijing or Book of Change that I’m interpreting with this project. So that’s one of the reasons why I chose to go with a Confucian philosopher’s name, but I do also really like the meaning of the name! Wang (meaning King) might be the most common last name in the world, which is used by about 96 million people (I just looked that up a few days, ago), but the meaning of the other two characters is quite interesting, too.
M: Yang is a very well-known word in the Western hemisphere, since it is part of the Yin-Yang concept a lot of people know from Daosim. The character depicts the sun next to a hill or a mountain (it used to describe the sunny side of a mountain). Ming consists of the sun on the left and the moon on the right and means bright or enlightened. And since philosophy is always trying to illuminate the dark, I really liked that name. The term “outsider ambient” was actually coined on Reddit by someone who tried to describe the more atmospheric kind of vaporwave, and I thought that it had a really beautiful, yet a little dark sound to it, so I used that!
S: What inspired you to utilize vaporwave aesthetic in making art?
M: I also majored in art in high school (we needed three majors and two minors), so I had to produce a lot of “classic” art by just drawing it. But I was always really really interested in artist like Picasso or Duchamp (the latter is definitely one of my biggest inspirations for the theory behind my Vaporwave music) or the Dadaists, who recontextualized art. Picasso did a lot of collages, Dadaists did collages and experimented quite a bit with those techniques, but Duchamps just nailed it with “Fountain.” (That guy is literally my hero, and in my honest opinion one of the greatest, maybe even THE greatest artist in modern/conceptual art.) So, basically I was always more interested in experimenting with art/music, and vaporwave just gives me the space to do so; I also play the piano, the guitar and the erhu (Chinese violin), which kind of represent the more “classic” realm of music, in which the instrument (including the voice or any sound you produce yourself) is the means to the end of producing music. But in vaporwave, through recontextualization, we suddenly don’t need those instruments anymore, but we take the already finished product and turn it into a means, again.
M: On the other hand, we have “broken transmission” or “mallsoft,” where you have a totally different idea. The songs that those producers sample are actually a means to the end of making the consumer buy a product. But then, those producers take it, and turn it into an end itself; the Muzak becomes the product! And then, there’s of course that point, where you have a second referential level to the whole vaporwave art/music. You listen to a song or you look at a picture and it makes you feel something, just like every other piece of art does. But since we incorporate the samples, people might recognize them and be like: “Oh, why did he use this samples to create that kind of atmosphere?!” Or some people might kind of know the sample, but can’t really put their finger on what it actually is, so the track creates a feeling of disconnect or discomfort. In my opinion, no other genre of art/music can do these things in the way that vaporwave is doing it. That’s why I really got into producing vaporwave.
S: Your work is based on the Chinese Book of Changes, also known as the “Yijing.” Can you describe in layman’s terms what the Chinese Book of Changes is, and how it informs Chinese traditional philosophy and culture?
M: The Book of Change or Yijing is an ancient Chinese book that consists of 64 hexagrams (symbols made out of six lines that can be either divided or undivided) and a few commentaries that got added, lateron. Each hexagram describes something in the world, may it be a feeling, a process, an entity or an event. The book can be either read as a cultural work, describing the world, as poems, or as an oracle, which is probably the most common way. When you use it as an oracle, you have to cast coins to get a random hexagram that will objectively (since destiny is objective) tell you something about your present state of being, in the world. Since there has been a lot of theorizing about the hexagrams, each hexagram has six “line statements” that kind of explain the meaning of each line in the hexagrams. Those are the statements that I translate in the “lyrics” section of my releases, on Bandcamp.
S: Can you provide an example of a hexagram and how it could be interpreted?
M: Hmm… That’s a tough question, since there are so many beautiful hexagrams to chose, but I think, I’ll go with the fourth hexagram “蒙,” which I already translated in my second album “屯蒙.” The hexagram statement is: “Meng means success. I do not search for the young and inexperienced, the young and inexperienced searches for me. Divining for the first time, I’ll teach it. The second and third time, it will drain my energy. The draining ones are not worth being taught about it. It is advantageous to stay firm.” So, when you hear this for the first time, you’ll thing: “Okay…???” But it’s not as difficult as it sounds! The word teaching (or explaining something) indicates that there is some kind of master. A master is normally a wise person, and since he doesn’t “search for the young and inexperienced,” we should probably not go on a search, either. The sentence continues: “…the young and inexperienced searches for me.” So, there’s no need to go on that search anyways – everything that should come to us, will come to us. (After all, Meng means success!)
M: If we made it this far, the rest is not as difficult anymore. The master is trying to teach the technique of divination to his new students, and some of them understand it the first time, while others take a little longer to get it. The hexagram tells us: “The draining ones are not worth being taught about it.” Which means, in our current situation (as stated above, the hexagram tells us about our current situation in the world), we should not keep the things that are draining our energy, but get rid of them. This is what gives the whole hexagram a little negative connotation. Even though everything will be successful, we need to get rid of the draining factors, since they might still cause us to suffer. Therefore, the line ends with the words: “It is advantageous to stay firm,” and in accordance with the rules set by the hexagram. For most people, this statement is enough, but if you really wanna penetrate the meaning of each hexagram, you’d have to go through this process with the 6 line statements + their comments + the hexagram statement’s comment. And since even Confucius said, he could understand the other four classics, but never fully grasp the meaning of the Yijing until his death, I think, it’d be a huge life goal!
S: Each album you make is based on two hexagrams out of the sixty-four present within the Book of Changes. How do you seek to evoke the uniqueness of each hexagram and the philosophical implications of such in your music? How does this relate to your production style and process of creating music?
M: First of all, I read over a translation of the whole hexagram to kind of get what it is about. Then I start translating the whole hexagram myself, in order to maybe find a deeper or hidden meaning that the translator might have missed or something. After that, I’d let it sink in a little bit and start experimenting with different sounds. In the beginning, it’s less about the specific sample that I use, but more about the atmosphere or feeling, I want to evoke. Then, after laying the foundation or basic structure of the first track, I normally add things on top to have the track kind of “finished,” and I’ll move on to the next track. This goes on until I’m done with the six tracks. Depending on the kind of connection or disconnection, I feel in between the hexagrams, I sometimes let the track melt into each other. When this is done, I’d start adding the “details.” I’ll add more effects, smaller samples. Sometimes, I take little things away, sometimes, my feeling towards a track has changed, and I change big parts of it. (I think, if I’d start over at hexagram 1, everything would’ve turned out differently…) Throughout the whole process, I read the hexagram, over and over, again. And then, I’ll “master” my tracks. I’m not the best person at mastering, but I’m getting somewhere! But overall, there’s always a kind of idea behind the whole album, from the beginning on. It’s just everything that is “stacked onto it,” that might change later.
S: What informs your choice of album artwork and symbology?
M: The artwork is a difficult topic. Sometimes, it’s things closely related to the text and sometimes it’s things connected to the theory behind the Yijing or Wang Yangming. The first album shows the River chart, which is connecting the trigrams (two of them make up a hexagram) to numerology. The second album shows Wang Yangming himself. The latest EP I released (泰) shows a text by Wang Yangming in the background, and the Dharma-Wheel (Buddhism influenced Confucian and Daoist theory a lot in the second half of the first millenium C.E.) and four kinds of “emotions” that human beings can experience. So overall, the album artwork is less closely related to the specific hexagrams, but more to everything surrounding the whole project.
S: Do you have a “goal” in mind with creating art? Do you have an idea of what the listener “should” or “could” feel?
M: I don’t really like to say that the listener “should” feel something, since it always implies an active force from my side. I rather want to be the passive force that creates the atmosphere to evoke certain feelings, already present in the listener. After all, the art is not what I’m producing, anyways. To say it with Ernst Cassirer’s words, the art is what happens in-between the piece of art and the audience, since they reflect themselves in the art. Therefore, art does also have an inexhaustible worth for the audience, since by reflecting themselves, they will experience something and therefore gain something. If they reflect themselves in the art, again, there’s another outcome since, they have more experience than before.
M: When I started my project, I wanted to produce something calming and atmospheric, and later on, I wanted to get more into meditative music, but then, I realized, people think that it is really dark, or unsettling… So, after all, this is the perfect example for the theory, as far, as I can judge it… On the other hand, I started this project for the sake of experimenting with different kinds of sound. Since I think that even the worst music can mean something to someone, I uploaded it, and somehow people seemed to actually like it, so I continued uploading it and eventually, this project really grew on me and became really important to me!
S: What beginner resources do you recommend for someone who is interested in learning more about the Book of Changes?
M: The best beginner resource is actually a full undergrad program in Chinese Philosophy (laughs), but I doubt, a lot of people wanna spend years on learning about this one book! I think, the first step is buying the Yijing itself and just reading a few of the hexagrams. (The book can also be found on the internet, but I always recommend physical copies, since you can write notes into the book!) Don’t be afraid, if you can’t really understand what the book is trying to tell you, it takes quite some time and research to really grasp its sense! But then, there are a lot of good articles on Wikipedia or other web sites that can provide good information about certain things (e.g. the color yellow meaning Earth and therefore femininity). There are also some lectures on the internet that can be streamed for free, so that might be helpful, as well!
M: About the last question,… There’re a few works that I would recommend, but they’re either in German or Chinese, so I can’t really point my finger at something in English. But one of my professors always said, we should try to work with the text itself first, and see what it tells us, and afterwards, we can look at secondary literature and look at other people’s interpretations!
Check out 王阳明’s newest release 泰 below: