Li Yilei

May 20, 2021

Li Yilei (b. China) is a London-based musician, performance and sound artist As a gender non-conforming individual with Aspergers, the experience fluctuates between chaos and sometimes painful stillness, reflecting various conditions of being and existence. Their body of work which spans sound, text, installation and photography, is plagued with the polarity of minimalist subtle moments that are translated into abstract sonic languages. Li’s works are abstract manifestations of an inquiry into tropes of phenomena, existence, power dynamics, and the politics of sound and listening. Constantly examines the discriminatory perception of the world’s phenomena in its subtlest terms, exploring the inaudible and diaspora body, as well as the practice of non- hierarchical listening.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I am a spiritual practitioner. I collect sounds/thoughts/moments/happenings and collage them, remaking them into objects, songs, images, and more.

You’ve said before that many of your songs begin with written text that translated into music. How would you describe the experience or the intent of the initial writing process?

I don’t come from a musical background, I  don’t compose or write music in a conventional way. I don’t even feel like I’m making music, it’s more of translating a piece of writing into sonic language. I love writing, especially poetry. I like to take notes of moments. What happens is that I get the phrase appearing in my mind that becomes a repeating phrase or a sentence, and I try to portray the image with sound fragments – see it as painting with sounds.

Do you have any daily rituals?

Every morning I contemplate death and it reminds me of the possibility that anything could happen and I might die today. I like to be prepared for impermanence and unpredictability. It is a daily preparation that helps me take it one day at a time. I cannot ignore death and its impact on me, the subject of it has been a burden in my life but I am slowly transforming it into a blissful journey to inner enlightenment of life.  I’d say it is a rather personal ‘daily ritual’ of mine.

Could you talk a bit about NON DUAL Collective and what made you want to form an art collective?

I’ve always struggled with finding opportunities to present my work and I wanted to create a platform for people like myself. After that, I came to realise that it was my being as a POC and extreme introvert with crippling anxiety who was unable to network and self-promote as a neurotypical person could. So I guess it became a gathering to showcase like-minded people.

Image description: In this photograph Yilei performs live at Rich Mix. In the photo they are standing behind some electronic music equipment and behind them the words "The bothered body is not just myself" are projected in white onto a deep blue backdrop. Yilei is illuminated in red light.
Yilei performing at Rich Mix.

As a multidisciplinary artist, musician, and founder of NON DUAL Collective, how important is balance?

Things are only appearing to be unbalanced when things go out of your control and you try to force it to happen. It is very simple for me – when I feel overwhelmed by my current plans, I will pause that element of my work/life. If I simply do not have time or the capacity for it, I will not force it into my agenda. I do not force myself to do things because it is something that I was supposed to do. It is all about the right conditions gathering to allow everything to take place naturally, and if something comes to an end naturally, then it is time. So I guess balance is important in a way that I will adjust the state of imbalance and seek for a middle way. I try to look after my mental wellbeing in the presence before drowning myself in the anxieties for future plans.

What are the most fulfilling and challenging parts of self-producing and recording music?

It is fulfilling in terms of how I can take full control of how I would like it to be arranged. If I want crappy sound quality, it is my decision to do so and I won’t have to match up to any kind of industry standard.

The challenging part is that sometimes it can be hard to step out from my own work. When I’m too absorbed I lose track of how the listeners would feel. Take for example A Field of Social Tension…it was created at the moment and yes it does give some people a headache, but it did not matter to me in that moment. It ended up having a lot of distance with many of the audiences. It is difficult to balance how much I want people to be able to enjoy, and how much attention or energy each track will require from people.

What are some things you have enjoyed reading recently?

I have been enjoying reading the book ‘Inner engineering’ by Sadhguru.

Image description: This image features Li Yilei performing "Three Breathes" in 2018 at an exhibition in London. They are pictured kneeling in front of a stack of one hundred cassette tapes. Yilei breathes three breathes into each of the cassette tapes during the performance.
Yilei performing “Three Breathes”(2018) in London.

In the past you have released music on physical formats, what are your feelings on the current state of music distribution and streaming services?

Let me just say that streaming services in digital realms are severely underpaying musicians. It makes it easy to be distributed globally to a wider audience, but it is almost too easy for the listeners. People take for granted how hard it is to put together a physical album. There is so much to consider – the material of the paper, size, colour of the vinyl itself. The manufacturing process is part of album making and it is under-appreciated. Many things are lost in the digital realm. Many albums have very artful inserts, with much contemplation put into typography, folding, which is all ignored in the digital realm.

Image description: This image is a photograph of Li Yilei. They are pictured squatting in a room with white walls and concrete floors. They are holding a large, round, beige drum in front of their face. They are dressed in all black.
Image of Li Yilei

What is the most memorable experience you have had while performing?

It was when I was playing the theremin for the first time in a gig, at Chinese Arts Now festival at Rich Mix. It was the first time that I felt like I was actually performing and was able to ignore the presence of the audience.  Prior to this, I was always hyper-aware of the gears I touch and the distance between myself and the audience, physically and mentally. I never really enjoyed myself during a performance until then.

Electronic music does not really involve the idea of an instrument as other acoustic instruments. Compared to traditional forms of performance, electronics are less bodily and physical. When I was playing theremin I actually lost track of physicality. When handling synth or laptop, there is always an awkward bodily interaction and stiffness and distance between myself and the object. When playing theremin there is no material touch or contact, and I can feel the air and translate that into sound.  I entered a trance-like state.

Describe your current studio/workspace

I don’t have the current condition to have a proper studio space, so I work at this half carpark-garden area which is in the basement of my apartment building. It is really empty and I sit there and work on any sculptures or bigger items. I take lots of photos there, and to me it’s like a white cube space that I always wish I had.

Interview composed and edited by Sam Dybeck.