We caught up with Li Daiguo for an afternoon jam session, accompanied with vocals by Chacha and woven—perhaps—around the theme of sleep. Li’s music hovers on the edge of reality and nothingness, and listening to it you can’t tell, to paraphrase Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, whether you’re dreaming you’re a butterfly, or whether you’re a butterfly dreaming you’re you. We’ve taken a part of the music and paired it with images, and we invite you to come along in this sonic reverie.
“Improvisation isn’t a genre, because it’s hard to determine what’s going to happen,” says Li. “Even if we repeat the performance, we’re ‘resuming’ it, not ‘replaying’ it, so it’s organic. You find a path in your own habits, a way in, and you have to protect it, build it up, so you can always get back, and then freely go on toward somewhere you never imagined.”
Who exactly is Li Daiguo?
First and foremost, a musician.
Born in the US, he first began studying Western classical instruments at the age of five. In his adolescent years, he explored instruments from other regions, and in college, he studied Chinese regional music and its cultural roots, while also studying twentieth-century literature and philosophy. Today, he’s become an established musician with experience in over 20 Eastern and Western instruments, in addition to beatboxing, Tuvan throat singing, and other vocal arts. For years he’s been going head-to-head with musicians from around the world, and this multifaceted exploration has led him to stop using labels to define himself. Whenever something resonates with him, he uses it to sow seeds, raise ripples. You never know where inspiration might come from,” he says. “Everything can influence me in some way.”
出生在美国，5 岁开始学习西方古典器乐，少年时接触了更多的地方器乐，到大学阶段便深入研习各地地域性音乐及其背后的历史文化，同时研究二十世纪文学和哲学。如今在二十多种东西方乐器和 beatbox、呼麦等人声中游弋，数年来与世界各地音乐人的“摩拳擦掌”，多维度的探索使得他摒弃了标签式的表象标准，他听到什么信息有共鸣，就拿那些来播下种子、掀起涟漪，“你不知道它来自哪里，因为所有东西都会对我产生影响。”
Listen to select tracks from Li Daiguo below / 点击即可试听李带菓的几首歌曲
Side A: “Listen”
So what’s the best way to approach Li’s music?
“All kinds of theories could easily be applied to explain the ideas behind my music,” he says. “But they might not entirely be true. The truth is . . . I don’t know! I just do something that feels good from my heart to my brain to my body. I’ll stop there. I’m not going to oversell it.” In marketing, the pitch is usually better than the product, he quips, then gives a belly laugh.
“So a lot of things are there for no reason, or the reason lies in what they do. Too many words, too little thought. The things we want to grasp are often beyond our control, so it’s best to stop right at the edge of what you can feel but can’t understand. Experience it, hold on to your perception.”
It’s nearly impossible to shoehorn his music into a theory, of course. His music seems to touch the truth or essence, as though it were the natural sounds of notes or the inner connections between things. It approaches the dao, but you can’t grasp the truth itself.
Side A: “听”
For performances, Li’s most frequently used instruments are the pipa, cello, and mbira (an African instrument that’s played by plucking it with a thumb). “When I use an instrument, I’ll think about the sound and vibrations it produces. I respect its original sound more because there’s a historical context there. It’s able to tap into a higher frequency. Someone asked me once, ‘That mbira instrument you use, why don’t you recreate something similar yourself? Or experiment with distortion pedals?’ The answer is simple. To me, the way the instrument was originally constructed is already close to perfection.”
李带菓最常用琵琶、大提琴和 Mbira（津巴布韦手指琴）来弹奏和创作，“在乐器使用上，我会从它的声音和振动来考虑，我更尊重它的原生音乐，因为它有那个历史，它能接通能量的概率更高。有人问我，你那个 Mbira 的非洲乐器，怎么不自己创作？或者加效果器做各种实验？因为对我来说，它那个系统和乐器的结合已几近完美。”
He adds, “So why do I perform with the cello and pipa? It’s because they’re fairly common instruments that many people are used to hearing here. From silk strings to steel strings, there’s so much potential in these instruments themselves, but frankly, old songs aren’t as compelling anymore. I spent much of my youth with these instruments, understanding their aesthetics, so I’d say I’ve become fluent in that language. But the mbira is a more narrowly regional instrument. It’s evolved in its own way. If in the future, I have the chance to express myself within that realm, I’ll let it happen. If not, I won’t fake it just to make something new.”
他又补充，“那为什么会用琵琶、大提琴创作？因为它们在地域范围内已经传播很广，丝弦也成了钢弦，这些乐器本身也有更多的可能性，老曲子的整个编曲没有那么大吸引力了。并且我从小在那个器乐的体系里，消化了它的审美，知道怎么用它的语言说话。但是 Mbira 地域性更窄，那个地区有他们慢慢的进化方式。但如果以后我能自然地在它的体系里说自己的话，那我也会允许它发生，如果没有，也不会为了‘新’去假装‘新’。”
Li’s wide-ranging insight into blending Chinese and Western culture is what allows him to experiment and innovate with musical instruments. “The real fusion is when music’s different souls are combined. There’s no incompatibility between past and present, because everything flows in one stream. As long as this fusion is still happening, then it’s just the evolution of a traditional form.”
“Those who aren’t willing to evolve have lost their way. Same for those who blindly pursue change, changing their posture and their performance. Then they add some drums, mix the traditional and the Western, the old and the new—their environment has warped their sensibilities. They’ve lost their roots, forgotten what’s most true. Perhaps this connection to roots is a sort of instinct, but if you truly seize its essence, you can summon its spirit.”
As of late, Li’s music sounds very electronic. “These are all acoustic instruments,” he clarifies. “All I’m doing is amplifying certain frequencies of their existing sound. It sounds like a synthesizer. A lot of people can’t believe the sound is being plucked from a string since it sounds like a group of instruments. But the instrument’s original sounds are all there, layered and nuanced. If you manipulate sound with acoustic instruments, you can be more flexible and create different sounds. The instrument shouldn’t be something you’re dependent on, but rather it should be a tool that represents and serves you.”
Side B: “Look”
What’s this kind of person like in everyday life?
As we chatted face to face over the table in the backyard of a vegetarian restaurant, his waist-length hair, sometimes gathered with a pin in a topknot, hung around his neck in a braid. The light breeze sprinkled parasol leaves onto our table and dishes. He brushed off the leaves and continued to eat with relish. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Everyone loves Chinese food,” Li surmised. “But 90% of the actual cuisine, most people probably can’t stomach. Many people have a limited palette.”
Side B: “视”
Curiously enough, Li—despite being a food lover—has actually been a vegetarian since he was 19. He believes we’re all animals. “People refuse to eat cats or dogs in many countries, but they’ll happily eat beef, pork, or poultry. They don’t view these things as related. But if you take the time to befriend a cow or a pig, you’ll discover the emotions they experience are the same emotions we experience. Their actions and feelings are similar enough that we shouldn’t be seeing them as only meat. I’m not a vegetarian because of dietary restrictions or an opposition to killing. It’s because these animals are products as soon as they’re born. That’s pretty bad.”
我却是好奇那么爱吃的一个人，却从 19 岁就开始奉行素食，他认为我们都是动物，“比如说很多国家的人，他不吃猫狗，但他会吃牛和猪、吃鸭吃鸡，他不会把那些当成有关系的东西，但如果你去试一下，跟一头牛或猪有感情，然后反射一下人与人之间的那些感情、各种行为，已经够接近到我们没必要去这样分。我吃素不是吃或者杀的问题，是因为从它们一存在就是一个商品，这个不是特别好。”
As we walked along the sidewalk after our meal, he carried his pipa on his back and lugged his cello behind him. Craning his neck to speak, he stumbled on a step and nearly took a tumble, but he recovered his balance with a series of comedically theatrical movements. Having spent the afternoon together, I was already quite familiar with his silliness, but the absurdity of the maneuver still left me laughing. “You know Charlie Chaplin?” he asked. “You could say that he’s a pessimist. But he wanted to make the world a better place with his comedy. I’m the same way. I know all of his choreographed movements come from the heart. I want to be the Charlie Chaplin of music. It’s my dream,” he said with a decisive glint in his eyes.
Later on, as I combed through all of the audio and video footage, I noticed that he would often approach the camera or the microphone to add a high-pitched “Ah!” as a coda to something he’d said. Li’s playful quirkiness, mischievous tendencies, and contagious charm have won over those who’ve been fortunate enough to get to know him.
In the past, Li used to be fond of words and language, but then he grew tired of writing and concluded that true expression didn’t need very much actual language—and that language itself could be another musical form. So he then blended words into his music, either through singing, recitation, speech, laughing and crying, or in duets with one instrument and one voice, telling a story, singing a story in the music. He also began making film shorts and theater pieces.”
Li currently lives in Dali, China, a town known for its beautiful mountains, clouds, and scenery. There he can enjoy the brilliant splendor of the great outdoors.
In the natural world, all sound is improvised. What we call music is adding to or subtracting from these existing vibrations.
“Nobody can create music that resonates with everyone, everywhere, at all times,” he says. “Only the sounds of nature hold this universal appeal: the sounds of cascading waterfalls, chirping birds, rolling ocean waves, and the pitter-patter of rain. In terms of transmission strength, nature is definitely the most powerful. If you want truly stereoscopic sound, you might as well go into the wilderness and take in the sounds rather than purchase a bunch of fancy equipment. It’s extremely pure. Your mood or mental state can only affect how much of that beauty you can take in. Or from another perspective, the cars outside, the fruit vendor’s call—if you can listen to how they come together, that’s also a kind of natural beauty. Or again, if you’re not influenced by your body, by material values, but can tune in directly to the universe, that’s also a way. In that case, music and art are unnecessary—they’re superfluous, they become self-expression. So I’m just a bird, and all I’m doing is chirping.”
Music is a journey for your senses, it’s a vessel, a medium that allows you to visit unknown realms. It’s something that allows you to tune into internal and external experiences. Music is indescribable.
“In a sense, music is a conversation with another universe,” Li says. “One that goes beyond all the small talk of our daily lives.”