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Sound Blanc - Drowning In Ambient

Along with Studio Afterwards, we interviewed the atmospheric music label Sound Blanc, to talk about their musical experimentations in the field of sleep.

Atmospheric music is a relatively avant-garde and academically inclined genre internationally, but it has always remained a niche in China, lacking the right environment. It wasn't until the emergence of Sound Blanc, a sub-label under Modern Sky, that attempted to approach the market from the perspective of functional music, that atmospheric music gradually found its place in China. And with the outbreak of the pandemic, more and more people had a pressing need for quietness, relaxation, and meditation. The therapeutic qualities of atmospheric music in people's daily lives became more evident, and it gained wider acceptance and popularity.

Starting from 2019, Sound Blanc began planning the "Clear Dreams" series of performances and subsequently produced the album "Deep." Both of these projects directly addressed sleep-related issues through music, exploring how music could create physiological commonalities transcending individual differences, allowing everyone to have a good night's sleep. In the spring of 2022, we had the opportunity to interview Demone, the founder of Sound Blanc, along with musician Wang Lu and therapist Mark Dongzuo, to discuss atmospheric music and sleep. We covered topics ranging from the development of atmospheric music to changes in the contemporary Chinese lifestyle, from personal experiences with insomnia to the possibilities of music therapy, and from the noise of the information explosion era to differences in people's perceptions of comfort. How can modern Chinese people sleep better? Musicians might offer some interesting answers.

Question: In the relatively niche ambient music scene in China, how did Sound Blanc Blanc get started?

Demone: In the summer of 2018, I began planning an ambient music label. At that time, the CEO of Modern Sky approached me and asked about the development of ambient music in China. I spent three months visiting musicians all over the country, and I was surprised to find that many people were creating this kind of music, but they struggled to find a good platform for it. Perhaps people thought this music genre was too niche and considered it an outlet for personal artistic expression. So, many individuals were producing this type of music but not releasing it or performing it. When I returned and reported this situation, Modern Sky's founder Shen Lihui expressed his interest in starting an ambient music label because he believed that functional music like this could have a promising market in the future. In the fall of 2018, I joined Modern Sky and started Sound Blanc Blanc. We aimed to explore the domestic market while also having the opportunity to engage with international musicians and the music industry.

Every year, our company holds a showcase at the end of the year, inviting industry professionals to see various new forms of technology and music performances. In late 2018, we invited Luyè and another Shanghai musician named Wang Wenwei to perform an ambient music set during the showcase. During this process, I realized that many people were very interested in this performance. In addition to the 30-plus people present at the event, the performance was broadcast throughout the company on screens, and people could watch it from their desks. What surprised me was that even the company's administrative, financial, and HR staff, who had never understood the things the company was involved in, found a deep appreciation for this type of music. They explained that they had been working at the company for many years and didn't understand much of what the company did because they were ordinary people with regular 9-to-5 jobs. However, they really enjoyed ambient music and found it very soothing. That moment touched me deeply, and I thought this could indeed be a market because it didn't rely on being unique or cool but rather on connecting with ordinary people on an emotional level, making it easy for them to fully embrace this form. So, we officially announced the label to the public through this showcase at the end of 2018, and we've been working on it ever since.

Question: The first time I heard the works of both of you was on the "Synthetic China" compilation from Dafu Records, and at that time, it was a more energetic type of music, with Demone leaning more towards House. How did your creative work evolve from that to a quieter state?

Demone: Electronic music in China is purely a foreign import culture, and many of us started with that energetic type of music. It's similar to how someone might start with metal or punk when getting into rock music and then gradually explore other music genres. So, in electronic music, I believe there were two parallel developments. On one hand, there was a focus on electronic dance music that could resonate with more people, at the very least, music that you could dance to. On the other hand, there was a focus on experimentation. Much of the mature electronic music in China today has been influenced by experimentation, noise, and artists like the avant-garde musicians in Japan, early noise music, or Nine Inch Nails. It was only later that we began to understand the commercial elements of music, such as house and techno. So, compilations like "Synthetic China" were backed by labels that had a strong experimental spirit. During this process, we were constantly searching for music that could be understood and appreciated by a wider audience from a mainstream perspective. Then, we gradually moved away from that. I think making ambient music is like returning to a "back to basics" state. It illustrates a significant point, that we are returning to the essence of music, which is the exploration of sound. However, this exploration comes after a period of rationality and rich experience, rather than blind experimentation or creating something "experimental" that's difficult to listen to. People started trying it out, and more and more individuals began creating ambient music. In the past, we were one of the few doing ambient music events, but now many underground clubs in China are starting to host Sunday ambient music sessions, something we couldn't have imagined before.

Wang Lù: It's really about not sticking to just one form of entertainment, not thinking that there's nothing else to do on weekends except drinking. In these very large cities, people's needs have gradually increased. For us musicians, creating ambient music also fulfills a new demand. You'll find that in recent years, many foreign artists who used to make techno or even bass music suddenly release extremely ambient albums. In a way, it's because they got tired, and they couldn't be energetic anymore. They realized that if they remove the frantic emotions from their music, what's left is a meditative state. It's often the younger musicians who create less ambient music, and it's as they get older that they might choose this quieter, more thoughtful lifestyle. That's when this kind of music emerged.

I think this is related to the overall mood of the world or the things we've experienced. We've entered an era of massive information overload, and it seems like we instinctively seek ways to escape from this overwhelming information. One crucial aspect of ambient music is that it reduces information, in terms of speed, the number of tracks, and emotional expression—it's maybe just one-fourth or one-eighth of what you'd find in regular pop or dance music. So, when you're in that state, the information received by the listener and the ambiance they perceive, as well as the space it creates, all change. I think this is a global trend in society. Back in the 80s and 90s, people didn't have as much information to contend with, so they might not have had as great a need to seek out music that delves deeper into inner thoughts or a different way of thinking. But now that need has arisen. So, both making and listening to music have undergone significant changes.

Question: How did Sound Blanc transition from functional ambient music to creating sleep-related music?

Demone: In 2019, we collaborated with an artistic hotel in Beijing's Sanlitun and created a series of performances called "Clear Dreams," where people came to dream. During the first performance, we noticed that many people fell asleep halfway through the show. Actually, Lu and the others were performing quite energetically, experimenting with various things later on. We found this interesting and promptly changed the promotional materials for the entire event, describing it as spending 200 RMB to come to Sanlitun and sleep with us.

Later on, we abandoned the overly abstract promotional approach for the entire operation of Sound Blanc. We prefer to let people receive it in a very peaceful state, without making them think it's highbrow art music. So, I think, for example, doing something as ordinary as coming to sleep together makes you feel close to us. When you come, you discover this music you've never heard before, it's refreshing, and there are many complex machines on-site that you don't understand, but the sounds they produce make you feel calm and secure, and then you just fall asleep.

"Clear Dreams" attracted a large number of repeat customers later on. These people knew exactly why they were coming, and they brought their own bedding, pillows, sheets, teddy bears, and their favorite snacks. They had fixed spots in the venue, and many of them came just to sleep. We were very satisfied with the entire event, especially the collaboration between Lu and Wang Wenwei. I remember that performance was the most impressive because there were so many people snoring, and all of those snores were recorded during the event. We were actually quite happy, seeing so clearly that many people could enjoy the company of this kind of music.

This project, first of all, made me firmly committed to creating this quiet music in the context of public gatherings. Secondly, we gained rich experience in how to engage with more people using something very subtle. Without exaggeration, why do you think Sound Blanc's music suits your taste so well? It's because in the early stages, we spent a lot of time in real-life scenarios, performing live, and understanding what people's needs were. Many musicians, including ourselves, enjoy making ambient music because, basically, we fall asleep while working on it. Many of these people have serious insomnia, and they have healed themselves through making ambient music. In this regard, Lu has a strong voice.

Wang Lù: In fact, I met Dong Tuo and got involved in this because of this issue. Making ambient music is also directly related to my physical condition. When you create very high-energy music, your blood pressure stays at a high level continuously, and you realize that something isn't quite right. This could shorten your career and perhaps your life. So, I slowly started to explore this type of music, and someone who had a significant influence on me in this regard was Dong Tuo. Actually, you can't say Dong Tuo is a musician; his identity is a singing bowl healing practitioner, and he taught me a lot about sleep.

I used to be a severe insomniac, and I'm aware of the entire process of treatment and the suffering involved. In China, insomnia sufferers need to acknowledge that they have a mental illness to receive appropriate treatment at hospitals. The treatment is relatively simple, mainly involving the use of various benzodiazepine drugs, which, besides having side effects, can be addictive and challenging to quit. The long-term battle with insomnia made me realize how terrifying it is. Treating insomnia itself is a complex issue, so I've been researching non-drug treatment methods.

Question:Can you both elaborate on how you started your collaboration and how you entered the field of sleep from a musical perspective?

Dong Tuo: I have a background in clinical Chinese medicine and later became involved in psychology-related areas, doing psychological counseling for many years. This included expressive arts therapy such as music therapy, chanting, and dance therapy. More recently, I have been working on sound bowl healing for over a decade. Striking singing bowls can produce a kind of resonance, and many people now use them as musical instruments.

I met Luyè at a performance. Luyè wanted his music to have a practical effect, and my hope was to completely replicate my healing sounds. Wang Lù is one of the top recording engineers in China, and I had tried having many people record my work, but only he was able to capture it accurately. Additionally, the format of "Clear Dreams" increased efficiency. Before, I conducted one-on-one counseling, and when leading a group, there might be only a few participants. When there were more people, the effect diminished because, after all, it's an unplugged performance, and the sound isn't very prominent. Later, when collaborating with Wang Lù, we found that it was easy to reach hundreds of people in a live setting, and when the music started playing, many people gradually fell asleep. I began telling everyone at the beginning of the show to give themselves over an hour to truly rest. In reality, it's challenging for people to let go of their anxiety, so at the beginning, they would still be watching videos on their phones, treating it as a business event. But as time went on, when our music started playing, you'd notice many people holding their phones, slowly falling asleep. I began collaborating with Wang Lù and Sound Blanc Blanc, and we released albums gradually.

Question:Demone mentioned earlier that ambient music is a relatively weak ideological form of music. However, from what Dong Tuo described, it seems to have a significant impact. Is there some scientific or medical basis supporting it?

Dong Tuo: If we define it as a branch of music therapy, it would be somewhat limiting because the music therapy we currently understand tends to be more psychologically oriented, using suggestion, rhythm, or some meditative elements to take effect. But in our research, we've found that different sounds, frequencies, and sound states, when felt by the body, can trigger bodily responses beyond consciousness. For example, the sound of singing bowls, or many of the electronic simulated sounds that Wang Lù added during "Clear Dreams," many of these sounds have physical and neural regulation effects that take effect before consciousness. Our original intention was also about how to let sound have the same replicable effect on everyone without discussing cultural factors; this is actually a direct response of the body. Many music therapies require a cultural background. For example, the statements used to guide Chinese people in meditation may be different from those used for Americans. The forms of expression, language, and speech rate may all vary. We are trying to overcome such cultural barriers to make it effective. Regardless of whether it's singing bowls or Wang Lù's modular sound effects, these sounds we use actually work beyond consciousness. In other words, whether you want to sleep or not, or whether you're not thinking at all, as long as you can focus your attention on the sound you're currently hearing, it will take effect.

Question: Could you explain how this sound works in the healing process?

Dong Tuo: The sound of singing bowls is intuitively a long humming sound. If we were to analyze this sound, we would find that it's not just one sound; it's a combination of a fundamental tone and 2-4 overtones. When we hear this sound with our ears, the feedback in our brain's cortex is that I heard a sound, it's the sound of a singing bowl. However, in the neural feedback, we hear several sounds. The brain's cortex has limited processing pathways, meaning it can experience overload when presented with more than three pathways.

So, when you intervene solely with the sound of singing bowls, the sounds of several singing bowls resonate and overlap. What we hear in our minds is a wonderful sound. But for our neural feedback, it causes our brain's cortex to stop functioning. So, many people say that when they hear the sound of singing bowls, they can let go of desires and halt the chaos of their thoughts. This is one of the basic principles. Is this sound, to some extent, a calculated sound with different stages? At the beginning, the sense of imagery may be weaker, but it gradually strengthens, somewhat like entering a dream.

Each piece of music has its own structure and logic, especially for sounds with direct effects like this. Within each structure, the sounds we use have been calculated and designed. As mentioned earlier, there is a sense of imagery, but in "Clear Dreams" and in our sleep-themed music, the narrative isn't as strong. It's just that people are in different stressful environments, and they have different spontaneous states, so what they project is different. Some people may want to enter a comfortable state, like going to the beach, on vacation, or being with a loved one in a very relaxing and wonderful environment. Others may have many scattered thoughts during this process and want to clear them. Everyone's experience may be different.

Question: Besides live concerts and album releases, have you tried any other forms? For example, during the pandemic, did you explore new formats to cope with various restrictions?

Demone: Starting from the year of the pandemic, we were quite pessimistic about the situation at that time. What inspired us were the online "Strawberry" concerts organized by Modernsky, which were live-streamed on two different platforms. At that time, I approached all our musicians and asked if we could participate, even though our music had relatively weak performance qualities. However, after we did it, we found that the results were quite good. I felt that, to some extent, our music was more suitable for online viewing. Because the situation at the time was that many people were staying at home, watching a rock concert with high energy might not be what they needed. Listening to something very calm might be more suitable for the state of mind at that time.

Later, we decided to continue doing online concerts ourselves. We started a series of concerts called "Ambient Friday" on Bilibili's Sound Blanc channel. For about half a year, we had a live performance every Friday night, and we did a total of 28 shows. Many people developed the habit of watching our live broadcasts on Bilibili every Friday. During that special period of the pandemic, we indeed attracted a lot of people who wanted to find interesting content to relax on leisurely Fridays. Ambient music performances were in line with the needs of that time. First, the music itself could soothe people's minds, and second, our performance format, with its scale and atmosphere, was suitable for the situation at that time. During that time, we found our own path and also got some opportunities for brand collaborations.

Later, we received feedback from the audience that many people liked to play our recorded concert videos as background music during gatherings with friends. Being recognized by the public and by peers, I think this is a very good state. Even after the pandemic is over and everything returns to normal, we have continued with these online concerts.

Question: Sound Blanc creates scene-based music and constructs a certain lifestyle. Could each of you describe the lifestyle you imagine and what this scene is like?

Demone: There used to be an old TV program called "Please Enjoy" where beautiful images and soothing music were broadcast during off-hours. What we want to do is the "Please Enjoy" of White Plus Records. We prefer that people play our music or videos at home during their leisure time, just leaving it there. In fact, many people just want a sound, regardless of what the music is. But if the music is exceptionally beautiful, I think that's a great enjoyment. Why did we make so many videos? It's because we want our music to occupy a place in your home.

This year, we created a series called "Everything Has a Spirit and Is Beautiful." We started this series last summer because we used to go out and play in Beijing during our free time. Then Wang Lù suggested, "Why don't we bring musical instruments with us?" So, in the process, we recorded a video of us playing music. However, it was a private gathering that day, and everyone except the musicians was cooking. When I was filming, there was a machine fixed on filming Wang Lù and others playing music, while I focused on washing vegetables, cutting vegetables, and cooking. As a result, about half of the video's duration showed a pair of hands washing vegetables, with Wang Lù and the others playing music in the background. I feel that what we wanted to express was that even though the music sounds very high-tech, like synthesizer music, and seems disconnected from the human world, we wanted to convey this sense of humanity through this approach. At that time, we made four videos, and my favorite one is the one with the vegetable washing.

It's very soothing, and the person washing the vegetables did it very thoroughly, so it's very satisfying to watch (laughs). But if I change my perspective and focus all the angles on how Wang Lù manipulated those machines, everyone might think that even though the music is beautiful, it's too technological and functional, and they might feel that it has nothing to do with them. So, Sound Blanc's positioning in China has actually undergone some changes. We've transitioned from purely ambient music to more ambient music, and even more fusion.

Especially in the case of Teacher Lu, he has always stood as a defender of traditional Chinese medicine clinics (laughs). He can accept those cold synthesizers and is willing to take a traditional instrument and try to create something right with modern music. So, I think from this perspective, we have many people in our label who play classical music and traditional Chinese music. They actually hope to stand from a slightly higher perspective than universal values but in a very peaceful state to spread this kind of music to the public. This kind of value and attitude towards music, I think, is what Sound Blanc primarily conveys. It's actually a form of lifestyle, an accompaniment. We don't need to occupy your time or space; we just let you listen attentively. And Chinese people have a hard time understanding abstraction; they always need something concrete, something explained. So, we can only make it more lifelike, more popular, without falling into clichés.

Question: Going back to sleep music, Sound Blanc released an album called "Deep深." Is this the kind of sleep aid and companion music we listen to when we sleep?

Demone: When it comes to releasing albums, we have always had an exploratory spirit, seeking to break through ourselves and find new ways. With albums like "Deep深," we broke through in two aspects. The first is the combination of tradition and modernity. The other is the overall design of the packaging, which we were also exploring. I think this album did some things on the surface, such as explicitly telling everyone that it's a sleep album, but it actually involved many experiments.

Dong Tuo: I'm very grateful to Demone and Teacher Wang Lù. This is truly a fusion across time and space. Wang Lù and Demone use modules that, as I understand, are extremely cutting-edge in electronic music, and they are constantly evolving. When I first met Teacher Wang Lù, I thought this thing was simply amazing. I have no way of connecting a circuit board with a beautiful sound, but they did it. What I use is an ancient object that has existed for thousands of years. Even the singing bowls we used in recording the album have a history of hundreds of years. I'm really thankful to both of them for making it possible to preserve such a cross-temporal sound in the form of an album.

Regardless of whether it's perfect or not, it's a great fusion, including Demone's packaging design. When this album was released, I was really happy because, whether it's the physical vinyl record or the electronic album that was later released, we basically achieved our preset goals. More and more friends are listening to the sound we've preserved to help them relax, accompany them into sleep, and that's something that makes me very happy.

Question: Finally, could each of you briefly share your expectations for Sound Blanc in the future and your thoughts on healing music?

Wang Lù: I think this will be a project I will continue to do for many years to come. I feel that in this state of music, it's a process of cultivation and self-adjustment for me. In the process of making this music and listening to it, I myself benefit greatly. For example, I can calm down more quickly, eliminate negative emotions, enter a better state of sleep, and have more energy to invest in more work. I hope to share these benefits, and that's a very simple idea and the reason why I do it.

Dong Tuo: Because I'm not a musician myself, I can only preserve healing sounds and share them with more people thanks to my collaboration with Wang Lù and Demone. Cooperation with White Plus Records and the two teachers has always been very pleasant and productive. In the future, I hope that there will be some sparks in other collaborations involving ambient music.

Demone: I still hope that more people, first of all, can find something in the music released by Sound Blanc or in our offline events that can truly help them. Whether it's helping you sleep well or improving your mood. Secondly, I still hope to make it possible for as many musicians as possible to find a good way and have the time and energy to create music like this. This kind of music is good for personal cultivation, whether it's in terms of musical composition or the understanding of sound and frequencies, there are many profound aspects worth exploring. In addition, in the past two years, things like meditation have slowly begun to enter China, spreading widely on various online platforms and gaining attention. I hope that ambient music, or sleep music, or healing music can truly become widespread in every corner of Chinese society, helping everyone improve their mental well-being.

Photo credit: Sound Blanc


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