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Issue 149

Grass Drama — Julian Yi-Zhong Hou
by Magnus Tiesenhausen

“Somewhere, underneath / It’s the same thing.” The experience of listening to and thinking about Julian Yi-Zhong Hou’s LP Grass Drama, for me, has been characterized by a cyclical return to this poetic fragment, whisper-sung by Hou on the album’s second piece, “Passionate Daylight.” The vinyl record is a musical aspect of a densely interwoven constellation of works, many of which were included in an exhibition of the same name at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in the second half of 2020. The LP strikes a gentle balance between simple, elegantly crafted songs and nuanced, narrative soundscapes. However, this exterior impression of effortless equilibrium contains within it an impossible radiant geometry of meaning and association, segments of which surface inconspicuously within lyrical content, symbology, and imagination. Among the pantheon of seemingly disparate narratives: the blossoming of rhizomatic bamboo forests, stages of addiction, desire, divination, synchronicity, paranoia, disappointment, and gardening. In listening, I could feel a strong sense of wholeness connecting it all, but whenever I grasped an edge of the work to try to follow it toward the node from which it radiated, I would slip off. I felt foolish. In my mind, I pictured a rotating, many-pointed star of smooth, hard material: slippery and fascinating.

In the search of Grass Drama’s centre, I found myself going downward, unearthing, digging. Guided by the lyrical fragment, I lifted shovelfuls and gently pulled back soil horizons, a process of katabasis. Amid the multitude of other definitions—a military retreat, the setting of the sun, glacially cooled winds descending from a higher altitude, a trip from the interior of a land to its coastline— katabasis is prominently understood as a trip to the underworld, often in search of guidance or knowledge. The search for what is underneath is somehow universal, archetypal. We call an invisible cause “underlying”; to solve the problem, we must delve under it. In my personal katabasis into Grass Drama, I came across a verse from the Emerald Tablet, a hermetic text attributed to the being syncretically representing both Hermes and Thoth, which reads, “That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above.” The verse, and its more common paraphrase “as above, so below,” defines a synchronistic relationship between the celestial and the tellurian, the macrocosm and the microcosm. “Somewhere, underneath / It’s the same thing.”

Rhizomatic plants reproduce by extending subterranean horizontal stalks that radiate outward from the mother plant. These rootstocks form nodes, which sprout forth new roots downward and new shoots upward to grow toward the light (as below, so above), becoming another member of a family of genetically identical flora. The sixth and title track of Grass Drama is a tense theatrical soundscape. Set against a creaky and microscopic-feeling backdrop of field recordings, repeated swells of distant and blown-apart vocals seem to incite the emergence of a fragile melody. The melody, at first so vulnerable and perhaps even a little sad, begins to establish itself, becoming stable and then confident, before disappearing once again. Accompanying this piece, in the liner notes of the album, is a narrative poem which follows a being named Aubergine through a series of transformations. Once Aubergine has divided into two, the two begin to multiply, forming a “perfectly symmetrical family tree” which suddenly erupts into flame. As Hou writes in the extensive notes included on the album’s sleeve, bamboo plants removed from their rhizomatic forests and relocated elsewhere will still blossom simultaneously with the rest of their home forest, regardless of the many thousands of kilometres between them. This phenomenon, called gregarious flowering, also heralds the end of the lifespan of both the origin forest and all of its relocated relatives; a theatre far older than Hermes, this grass drama.

Despite its depth and breadth, and the complexity of the sites of meaning within it, Grass Drama is comfortingly near-sounding. Each song is delivered unpretentiously, intentionally, and with care. “Solitaire,” the final track on the A-side, is a diaphanous expanse of sparse electro-acoustic improvisation and soft exclamations of delightments an attempt to channel and record spirits during a solstice, undertaken in collaboration with fiction writer Trevor Shikaze. Because of the generous intimacy of sound throughout, what could very easily feel exclusive experientially—a reverie not shared but witnessed from outside—instead feels like a gift meant for the listener.

In Aubergine’s narrative, Hou writes, “The awkward traversing back to a longer view where they feel smaller / but in this smallness the ability to reconnect to all small things.” Here, something resonates with me about the beauty and many-sidedness of Grass Drama. By descending from macrocosm to microcosm, the underlying rootstocks and nodes of meaning become accessible; at the same time, the extent of their subterranean reach, the smallness necessary to shrink, and the depths necessary to tread are immense.

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