We had the good fortune of connecting with Kaiwei and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kaiwei, what’s one piece of conventional advice that you disagree with?
Practice makes perfect. How would one define “perfect” and how exactly does one “practice” for it? The first half of this common idiom is a word that, when heard, is most certainly associated with mundane hard work and tedious repetitions, while the second half is an abstract description of a state most of us would deem out of reach. Perfection is something we struggle to grasp, yet we blindly pursue and long for. Within the capitalistic institutions we most commonly find ourselves victims/supporters of, I have been convinced that there is no better tactic to trick a good, hard worker to commitment and progress than the guarantees of a brighter tomorrow. Truth be told, not many of us spend much time defining what perfection means to ourselves. We willingly allow those in power to do that for us in politics, religions, every aspect of consumerism, health, body images, art, creativity and aesthetics.
But why would anyone ever need to be perfect? The most creative and inspiring artists dread the day when they reach perfection, the day the purpose of their journey is stripped from them. I wish I had not learned the construct of perfection, but now I can only unlearn it. The first step to unlocking my dormant creativity, genuineness, and true significance, is to accept that perfection is a scam made by my very own ego. It is only through acceptance of my imperfections that I will truly meet myself as an independent, authentic being. Of course, this journey includes knowing what was previously presented as perfection, the “end goal”, realizing that that is not what you are meant to or want to be, and starting to navigate yourself through a sea of “false perfections”. I had to go through 13 years of classical orchestral training, getting dragged to piano lessons by my parents, traveling across the planet to NYC to attend a conservatory, only to realize my true calling lies elsewhere.
Imperfection to me does not mean bad work (however you would define “bad”) or poor ethics. Knowing my true self also means the inability to fool myself or cut myself slacks when I perform poorly. When you finally become aware of your authentic self, and see for the first time your true shortcomings, you’d realize that those might not be the same ones as before. Nonetheless, they are shortcomings, which require improvement through repetition and reinforcement (or what most people call practice). We think we practice, struggle, forge and grind ourselves to transform our performance from one level to another, but we in fact only do so by forming habits. Up to 95 percent of human behavior is just ingrained habitual patterns formed according to blind pursuits of what we subconsciously think we need. The perk of being aware of and truthful with my ego is that I am rarely on the wrong track or forming the wrong habits, and I rarely practice/struggle/suffer for a supposed “greater cause”. If I truly find an activity or a skill set meaningful and worth advancing, I’d just do it over and over again with joy, and by chance get really good at it. And if I don’t get really good at it at the end, I would still have had a hell of a time, a meaningful time. At this point in life, with all the things I’ve gotten skilled at doing, I did them through this habitual mentality. As a musician I strive to not practice a single day of my life, and when I do, I’d know it is for something that isn’t my true calling.
I have deep respect for practitioners who go on to spend their entire lives pursuing what they were told by the world is perfection, as much as I empathize with those who have mistaken hardship as entitlement or guarantee to positive outcomes. I acknowledge the not so perfect world I live in, yet I didn’t see true beauty in it until I came face to face with myself.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I have been, and hopefully will always be a maker/listener of sound. The excitement of my life partially roots in discovery and inventions, and a yet discovered sonic event allows my path to revelation of unheard sounds to be a rather exciting one. However, rarely does a sound sustain my interest past the point of its discovery. As surprising as it may seem coming from a musician, I think it is easier for any artist to develop a personal identity when they navigate in a world filled with what they’d consider mediocrities.
Great musicians are trained listeners more than they are players (Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening Band, R. Murray Schafer, Francisco Lopez, etc.), and all masterful listeners have standards when sourcing materials. I navigate myself by pursuing sounds I have yet experienced or grown accustomed to. It is an exciting job to be a pioneer to unearth these mysterious sounds. It also is a more personal and adventurous process. This is a deeply meaningful way of gathering materials. Therefore, after years of hunting for sounds, I ended up having listened to a considerable amount of them. Most of them were mediocre, but I only needed some of them to be mind blowing to stay hyped. I studied the science and qualities that make them unique, boring, or sometimes beyonds description with words. I became capable of picking upminute differences between variations of alike sounds, and eventually I recreated them through sample-based synthesis.
Picture the sound of snow melting under the first ray of Spring sun, on a highland where wind sweeps rhythmically. It is a spectacular sound. The pulsating water droplets, the wind resonating at varying pitches through various sizes of crevices of an icy surface, a small stream of water escaping the snow pile soaking into the mud. Symphonic, yet extremely intimate, textural and micro. This was a sound discovered by field recordist and sound artist Chris Watson, who is a prolific sound discoverer and preserver. I was brought to tears when I first heard this on a podcast through a pair of Beyer DT770. I recall the time I was in Kansas visiting relatives and spent a month living rurally, 40 minutes outside Wichita. Night after night I was woken up by female weeping voices ringing across the night sky, accompanied by distant thunderstorms. It was a lonely but far reaching sound. As much as I was scared shitless, I was intrigued by the spontaneous emerging narratives as my brain received these foreign sonic information. What I had listened to in awe for nights, the hauntingly beautiful soft screeches and long cries, turned out to be mating coyotes.
These narratives became the foundation of found sound recreation. With powerful digital and synthesis tools, I aimed to recreate, fuse or deconstruct these fabulous sounds. As opposed to the traditional approaches in Musique Concrète (earliest form of music that involves sampling), I see these sounds less as whole objects, but standalone compositions with multi layers of textures/timbres waiting to be revealed, isolated and magnified. These form the building blocks of my compositions. “Pulsating droplets underlaying extended primal cries, accompanied by roaring thunderstorms,” is then recreated as enveloped and grain delayed sine tone attacks at various pitches, stuttering vocoder with reverberated falsettos, and pumping distorted guitar gently pushing the lower range. Through improvisation, these materials further become entities of their own, interweaving the sonic spectrum while forming structures. At the end stages of composing this piece, I would look back and realize that for the majority of time I simply listened. The samples developed themselves, the piece pretty much wrote itself.
It was through forming sound-based narratives, that my attempt at scoring for Ichen Wang’s edition of the play Dress In Code was a less an intimidating experience than expected. Letmotifs were composed according to my library of found sounds, things I sampled through acousmatic experiences (listening without comprehending the origin or nature of the sound source). These sounds in recent years have became my voice of improvisation. They helped me express emotions, convey sensations, and deliver dialogs with fellow improvisers. A Numark Mixtrack disc controller has recently been added to my mundane setup of a simple 49 key MIDI controller + loop pedal. Ｗith a Max/MSP patch, I was able to reconfigure the disc controller into a live vocal processor/sampler, with pitch shifting spin wheels and launchable cues. This setup helped me premier my latest work, Salmon (improvised texts in conjunction with a song that utilizes live processed samples).
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Concert venues to check out: (Le) Poisson Rouge
The Stone (The New School)
ISSUE Project Room
Lincoln Center (the phil, the ballet and the met)
Bushwick Public House
Russ & Daughters
Wah Fung Fast Food
BCD Tofu House
Brennan & Carr (hands down best roast beef sandwich in known universe)
Birria-Landia (a taco truck underneath 7 train elevated railway in Jackson Heights)
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Shoutout Ichen Wang, an absolutely talented artist and theatre director. Our recent collaboration on Taiwanese theatre play Dress In Code was a box office success, for which I had the pleasure of serving as a composer and sound designer. Shoutout to past mentors, Amirtha Kidambi, virtuosic vocalist and educator who provided me the doorway to the world of contemporary improvised music, and Rafiq Bhatia, composer and guitarist of Son Lux, who furthered my journey of creating unorthodox sounds through showing me the possibilities of unconventional production and performance approaches. Shoutout Nicolas Jaar, whose masterpiece Space Is Only Noise utterly annihilated my preconception of music at first, then granted me a new pair of ears, completely transforming my way of handling and appreciating sound. Shoutout to graphic designer, craftswoman and my partner Nancy Hu, who is much better an artist than me and has always been a beacon to me, both in art and in life.