Pan Daijing’s most recent album Jade came out on PAN a few months ago. Her previous full-length release was Lack, also issued on the label in 2017. Between the two albums, Pan has been exploring the art realms of opera, dance, as a performer and a director. Her large-scale pieces, Tissues (2019), The Absent Hour (2019), and Dead Time Blue (2020), have been presented at established art institutions open to new forms of art and experimentation with space and sound.
Now based in Berlin, Pan has been traveling between her hometown Guiyang, Shanghai, and Hong Kong in the past months. In China, the artist has been working on her most recent installations Done Due at Power Station of Art (Shanghai) and One Hundred Nine Minus at Tai Kwun Contemporary in (Hong Kong), exploring new spaces, probing further possibilities of a human body, and drawing energy from her birthplace surrounded by the ancient mountains.
Through her work, Pan often explores the depths and intensity of desires, fear, suffering, and pain. But her listeners and viewers don’t stay in complete darkness. Her work always points towards the light at the end of the unlit tunnel and leads towards the source of power.
Mariana Berezovska: During the period between your albums Lack (2017) and Jade (2021), you’ve presented large-scale works that combine opera, theatre, and dance, and explore the interaction between space and physical experience. Did you feel like you needed to document your sound explorations from this period in an album? Does Jade feel like a comma in the process?
Pan Daijing: It’s definitely a very interesting process for me because I didn’t have the idea for making an album. It’s not like I don’t want to share music—it’s just that over the past few years I felt very strongly towards sharing my ideas, my vision, and what I wanted to say musically through different ways of representing. I didn’t feel the urge of having to make an album. So Jade was happening really naturally and organically. If I have a sketchbook, and these albums are like notes I’m putting on the side randomly, they are like my emotional outlets. There were songs that happened when I was really exhausted, and I felt like I needed a break from my mind, so I just went to my studio. For me writing music is like swimming. I need it. It’s not like I can choose to do it or not, where I’m in the mood or not—it’s something that I need to do. Performing live or touring this type of live performance—no matter how much my work evolves in the future—I will always want to do it because I really need this for myself.
So I feel like this album represents different emotional outcomes that happened—be it like, “my brain’s saturated,” or like, “I’m shutting down,” or “I’m having a moment and I really wanna say something.” Many times I feel like I’m muted unless I’m making music. My first language is my dialect and my second language is Mandarin, and then English, so I feel like there are always gaps when I want to say something because of the language barrier, let alone the limitation of language itself. I’m not really a person who goes out a lot, I don’t have these exchanges with friends that often, so I feel there are moments where I really have to say something and making music is the only way for me to say certain things. So Jade is kind of a diary—maybe with the mindset where I didn’t really care about how the receiver would judge me, so I wanted to put my self-awareness aside. This is how I feel, this is what I am, and you might resonate with me—and that’s great. But it’s not here to please, it’s not made to have any purpose.
MB: During the period between Lack and Jade, the attempts to describe your music have been shifting from “techno,” “noise,” and “experimental” towards “avant-garde” and “neo-classic.” Where do you see yourself in today’s music and art landscape?
PD: My understanding of the genre is very recent. I didn’t grow up listening to electronic music, and I’m not trained in any kind of academic way, either musically or in the fine arts. I don’t want to pretend or try to be someone I’m not. I don’t want to have any bias or presumption of sounds that appear to me. I do value the power of ears as a filter of taste or preference. I don’t know why this appeals to me more than that —nobody tells me why this is better. In fact, it’s not better, it’s just that I personally like it more, so I feel like I don’t want to put anything in a box. No matter what labels are put on my sound and however people want to introduce it, it’s not up to me.
I’m very patient in the development of my work, and my way of researching is by doing it. Playing shows and writing music is my way of searching and learning, so Lack in a way is a research outcome as well. It is my exploration of how to use voice and how to challenge operatic techniques, and my way of voicing certain musical ideas. This is very different to Jade, because with Jade I feel more like a childish person, even though it comes later. When I’m doing my projects, I often compare it with this feeling of giving birth, even though I’ve never done it. It’s this kind of mother nature feeling where one minute you have this feeling of creating something and then you give it all, so that feeling is almost traumatising, but it comes with pleasure. So, Jade was just something with no statement, no gesture, or purpose. I felt I just deserved to do something for myself. I do value this vulnerability between me and the listeners, I hope this way of communicating can come across as a really genuine way of showing this feeling of courage, and how to deal with confrontation or with a difficult time—we can just be it. You don’t have to necessarily try harder than you want to. I hope that kind of message is delivered, but not with words. I also want to see how much can be said through music without putting actual lyrics on top.
MB: How did your fascination with opera start?
PD: My interest towards opera started when I was a teenager, because my best friend was a professional opera singer. So I was always surrounded by this magical human vocal power. I grew up as a very athletic person, I loved doing sports. Also growing up in China, I understand how a human can challenge their limits—I find this a very interesting concept. This is what noise is doing as well—challenging the very extreme of your ear. So it’s interesting to see what a human voice coming from a small body can do, just the voice itself— it’s very sculpted, full of possibility. It’s so flexible, and to be able to have such big possibilities requires a lot of technique. Maybe “technique” is the wrong word, but you need to be able to control and be the master of your owning. It’s the same with the mind—if you’re able to take your vision further, you need to be able to absorb a lot of wisdom, or else it’ll become a bit more narrow. So I feel like a good opera voice and a good understanding of singing and the way of transmitting these details is very epic, but also unpretentious. Many people see opera as a very “pretentious” form of art, because of the tradition of it. I think that’s more because of the social setup, which kind of takes away from the natural beauty of this music. I listen to a lot of classical pieces, not just opera—I really love Glenn Gould (pianist from Canada). The way he plays music doesn’t feel like he’s playing a Bach piece on a Steinway, it almost feels like he’s in a basement, doing a noise set for himself. It’s more the artist who stands for the piece and gives the tone of the work. So I feel like opera has a lot of potential because it’s such a fixed form and it hasn’t changed much which allows it a lot of space. Like when you see a very closed glass you just wanna break it. That’s the feeling I have towards it.
In my early twenties, I was looking at a lot of dance work, and no matter the form or the environment of my work, I feel the core has always been the idea of music, the concept of music or the philosophy of music. If it’s a big dance piece, choreography is the centre of it, which is the comparison to the composition in opera. This is the centre. The choreographer is at the core of it. Then you have the stage, you have the costume, you have writing, you have the acting, you have music, you have everything! Well, they call it ‘multidisciplinary’, I’ve learned. You have all these possibilities to serve this one idea, which is dance. I think that’s how a great dance piece puts dance in a place that’s beyond the idea of dance itself. It transforms dance into this way of taking you that you forget you’re watching a dance. It’s like when you watch a film and you forget that it’s about a story. If I can think of one way that would put music in that place, which is a similar place to where music stands in my mind, which is opera, that you utilise all possibilities to serve the idea of music. That’s how I want to present music.
I started to think of possibilities—I also don’t feel like it’s right for me to just be the writer of an opera, because I don’t want to write opera music, I want to represent the music in my mind in that place. I want to be the writer who writes the script, the director who directs the piece, the composer who composed the music, and the stage designer who designs everything. It’s not so much that I want to do it, but it’s more that I think the work has to be complete. I don’t want to confuse that there is any relation between my work and the traditional Wagnerian ideas but it is in a way—like he talked about this idea of a total-work [Gesamtkunstwerk]—the artist taking care of every aspect of it. I don’t think I need to have a profession as a composer, a director, or an opera director. It’s just an artist. The artist who is writing. Let’s say there are many visual artists who make films, sculptures, paintings, but you would not separate them. I think that maybe music needs this voice, this way to challenge our understanding of music much more beyond sound.
For me, since day one when I started listening to music, I don’t just listen to it. I see it. I feel it. My mind is touched by it. It’s all senses together. Why can I not present it that way? So of course when I thought about it before Lack (2017), it felt almost impossible. But sometimes you’ve got to try and see how everything comes together, and I’ve done many projects trying to expand and expand, always following one path, even if it doesn’t look that way. Maybe for some people it felt like I was jumping from music to arts. I don’t personally see it this way. I am on this path now, bringing these two things together. I don’t think it’s something I’m trying to tell people—I think it’s something they already know. They just need to be reminded that this is the possibility.
MB: Even though you are the one directing and writing an opera piece, in the production process you need to interact with singers, dancers, light and set designers, choreographers. This also requires special skills and experience. How does this process work for you?
PD: I think a positive side of everything is that I don’t necessarily like this traditional idea of collaboration because, for example, I am doing the lights myself, but I do consult with a light professional. I really respect people’s knowledge and experience, and I don’t think I can do everything by myself, but I do have a very clear idea and vision of every aspect of the work. When I work with the light designer I’m already going with a very specific plan, and they rather just help me execute it, or draw out something more specific. Same with the costume, I always have very specific ideas. For example, for Tissues at Tate (2019) I actually did the lights all by myself, which was also a learning experience because sometimes things don’t all come together easily. This is what I’ve also learned being an artist—you need to have a lot of knowledge and skills that you need to constantly prove. And you’re also learning by doing it. I’m really grateful for having a very good team of people that strongly support me and believe in these ideas and vision, and are willing to make things happen together. I think that’s very important.
Working with the singers and dancers is a fascinating process for me. For opera pieces, I compose every single note and voice by myself so there’s barely any space for improvisation for the singers. Of course with certain projects it’s different. My relationship with the opera singers is sometimes like a composer, sometimes like a sister, sometimes like a director. I don’t have any classical training and I don’t give them any notes. We do workshops together and I teach them how to sing it, and I don’t mean technically but musically, composition and emotion-wise. They are very talented musicians, so they are able to understand what I am trying to achieve in this process. We spend a lot of time together so it’s a very close relationship, and they really get me. In the later projects, I’d always work with the same cast. We’re all like a small family. I know the nature of their voices very well and I really respect what they can do, and they are the stars of my film. Sometimes it does feel like there are chances for them to bring out more of their emotional side and they get some space for improvisation. When that happens, like at One Hundred Nine Minus in Hong Kong or at Done Duet in Shanghai and there is more space for them to perform vocally, then I will be more like a director with actors. You don’t tell them how to smile but you give them ideas, you direct them to bring most of their potential out. It’s a very intimate way of working with the singers.
With the dancers, it’s a little bit different. I would say that my movement inspires the performers’ movement. We also do a lot of workshops, and I would give them instructions and narratives, showing them movements, because I’m also dancing myself in all of my work. So it kind of feels like I’m a conductor, but my conduction is using my movement. They see me, we’re in conversations, it’s a very poetic way of interacting. The way I’m approaching dance is the idea of a body in space and it needs much more understanding and strength than mere memory of movement. They often say that performing my work is very meditative but very exhausting. It is important for me that I can always perform with them, so we can dance together, and together to be part of the work. We’re not representing the work, we’re not serving the work, we are the work and we’re part of it. The difference between us is just that they are much more under the spotlight, and I am happy to do that because it’s a very interesting feeling. When you’re touring as a musician you are the sole star on the stage. We play shows for 5, 500, or 2,000 people, you never know. And even if there are only five people, they are looking at me. But with this type of work [with dancers], I love this feeling of being able to discover beauty in people around me and their potential. They’re shaping my vision. It’s almost a motherly feeling, which I guess is very strange. I wouldn’t say that this kind of interaction with the dancers is as much of a personal level as with the singers, because music language, physical language, and visual language have a very different nature. I’m comfortable to have been working this way—it’s kind of my own personal method of developing work, and there are many ways of doing it. For example, I’m doing an exhibition in December in Hong Kong, where I’ll be working with a brand new cast and there will be more filming and acting. So it’s a working method that I want to constantly evolve.
MB: You’ve presented your work in a variety of spaces with completely different architectural structures. For example, your two pieces that are on view now, One Hundred Nine Minus at Tai Kwun Contemporary (Hong Kong) and Done Duet at Power Station of Art (13th Shanghai Biennale) seem to be completely different and need to be approached with a different mindset. How do you interact with different architectural spaces? Where does your understanding of space, the way that sound works, and the way an audience experience a piece come from?
PD: I definitely have this idea of how strongly I feel connected to space. I always say that my ears are here, my thoughts are here, I just need a chance to discover it. I didn’t grow up with electronic music but it never felt like I had to “discover” it when I first heard it. I feel like my discovery of what different spaces meant to me started when I started to tour as a musician alone. I’d walk into that place and I’d see the space, seeing what people were there and how they could interact with my work, and that came naturally to me. Throughout different shows I’ve understood what space meant—to me and to different people. I toured quite intensely from 2016 to 2018, so those two years were a very big base for me to do research that I can put into my bigger performance work in the future. Especially with my background growing up as an only child, I always wanted to feel a belonging, and I do feel like space is where we belong. It could be a physical space or a mind-space, but space is where we as people belong, and I feel like it’s important for me to generate this sense of belonging, through transforming or ”awakening.” I feel like I’m evoking or awakening the power of a building through my understanding of the environment—I can use light, people, sound—but with this respect towards a space and our equalness. I look for a lot of equality in my work—between the performer and the audience, between the artist and the performance, the work and the space. I want us to feel like we’re together, that there’s no hierarchy. I’ve tried this in many different ways, and many things come intuitively. All my work is site-specific, and the site visit is very important for me to understand the history of it, and to understand how I feel.
For example, One Hundred Nine Minus in Hong Kong is a sound installation installed in spiral stairs throughout the whole building. For me, it was more of a calling. It was a calling that you are filling up the soul of the space, it’s going through and up but you are down below. It has this understanding or imagination of the space. Whereas Shanghai (Done Duet) felt much more like a dream, a reverie. I want people to feel that I’m not putting this piece of sculpture inside this space, but instead that I am discovering the space—not just the building and the structure, but also the lights that come through the window, the temperature, the texture of the wall, every detail that our senses can feel. I want to feel like I’m using my work to make this space alive again. I want to feel like the space is breathing, it’s giving you something, it’s talking. If there is something that I’m most comfortable with [to describe my work] then I’d say it is “live art.” Stillness doesn’t mean death. Something can be still but still crazy alive. Same with music— it doesn’t have to be loud to be powerful. I’m very lucky to have used some of the very exciting space in our institutions to be able to do something interesting. I definitely think space is a key element in my envisioning of how the work should be.
MB: In your work, you draw many metaphors from natural phenomena. How did you develop this strong connection to nature?
PD: I grew up in a city in the mountains and that’s where I spent my first eighteen years [Guiyang, China]. So for me this is where it feels like home, and it’s where I felt most comfortable. I like this quietness and feeling small, this feeling like we are not important, and we are just a part of something bigger. This makes me feel safe. And I need to feel safe to be able to go crazy. That’s why I draw myself close to nature, closer to mountains, to water like waterfalls, springs, and lakes. I don’t purposely use any “Chinese” elements in my work, but of course I am very open towards anything that comes naturally out of my culture. There’s a lot of Chinese philosophy that explores water. And we often say that, “The mountain is a place that holds the depth of mind.” This is where you can go deep into your own thoughts, because the heaviness of the mountain can carry any weight. I also feel that my thoughts are heavy. I think the centre of my work does reflect an understanding of pain and suffering. These are very intense topics, and it’s only when I’m close to nature that they don’t weigh on me anymore. For example, water and a lot of these ecological materials are involved in the installation Done Duet in Shanghai. I felt that if I wanted to have the courage to be honest or exposed to certain things, I needed to feel strength, and that comes through learning from nature. I have had a tortoise as a friend for a few years, and this creature is like the biggest mentor for me. He’s just so still and peaceful in his shell, and can absorb all the information around him without having to show any sign. This is the feeling of a harbor I have in the mountains. And that kind of mentality hopefully transforms into my work as well.
MB: This is also connected to another theme present throughout your work—solitude. Solitude is often confused with loneliness and is considered to be a bad thing. Also, the pace at which we create, consume, and live our lives today allows very little space for time with ourselves. In your process, though, it feels like another key element.
PD: It’s important for every being to have this sense of belonging, but not possession. And that’s something that gets confused quite often in society. That’s why I think solitude is important, because you can be alone but not feel lonely, when you have a sense of belonging. You can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely if all you want to feel is like you have possession, you have control, you own something. And that’s a huge difference. I think only through experiencing and embracing solitude, and learning from solitude can we separate these two things. One is very dangerous, the other one can give you a lot of strength—to be able to deal with yourself.
Eventually, I hope that my work can give this sign of the possibility of letting go in order to be part of something that’s larger than yourself. Possessions can be dangerous because they can be empowering, but this kind of empowerment is almost toxic. Maybe I’m being a bit too radical but that’s how I sometimes feel when I look at social media. I just feel sad that this urgency, this craving is so apparent. I immediately feel like I don’t belong there and that I immediately have to do something about it, and that’s not right. So I have felt that I want this solitude, this mind-space that we need to secure for ourselves as a means of deeper understanding so that people can truly respect each other, or else everything becomes instant.
MB: Sound-wise, you’ve alway had a very intimate relationship with noise, you’ve described it as a lullaby. How did this relationship develop?
PD: I have many different ways to express my loyalty to noise. I used to say “love” or “passion” but right now it feels like I’m loyal to it. If once I was standing at the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was about to jump, noise would be this stranger that passed by, just held my collar with a pinky, and saved my life. It’d be so effortless for him or her but it would changed my whole world. I’m someone very nostalgic, someone who re-remembers the goodness in something, and if something had a really positive impact on me I will always remember it. So when I was feeling that there was absolutely no hope, noise showed me a strobe of light in this absolute dark tunnel, which is something that still inspires me nowadays when I create my work. Maybe we’re talking about intensity and the horror of living, or the pain of living, and that’s absolutely a dark path that I’m showing. But the point is not to introduce darkness; the point is to be able to introduce this bit of light at the opposite end of a dark tunnel.
Noise makes me feel most aware of my ears and my mind. Noise is a way for me to remember my roots and to be able to have deep listening. What I mean here with “deep listening” to noise is not just listening with your ears, but with your whole body to see what it could do to you. That’s how I started to develop my faith in music. Noise is dominant in a very intelligent way; it makes me defenceless. I guess because of my upbringing I’m a very defensive person; I feel like I constantly need to protect myself. But with noise, I don’t have to feel that way. It’s a fantastic feeling, it feels free. Noise for me is a place that I will always return to when I need to retreat, where I will always be recharged, I need to be reminded where I come from. I need to be reminded that it’s important to hold onto your roots and your region. I feel like I’m only at the beginning, and I don’t wanna forget why I’m doing this. Otherwise, everything I do would be pointless.