[Community Report]A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related communities [index].
Sound Art Singapore
Conversation with Pete Kellock, Zul Mahmod and Mark Wong
This paper is a “constructed multilogue” oriented around a set of questions about sound art in Singapore. I have lived here since 2007 and felt that a “community report” should aim to probe recent history deeper than what I could possibly do on my own, in order to give a rich perspective of what is happening here today. I was very happy when Pete Kellock, Zul Mahmod and Mark Wong agreed to be interviewed. Each has a long-time involvement in the Singapore sound scene, in a different capacity. Pete is an electroacoustic music composer who has worked in research and entrepreneurship, and is a founder of muvee technologies. Zul is a multimedia artist and performer who has developed a rich personal expression, mixing sonic electronics, sculpture and robotics in playful ways. Mark is a writer and sound artist who has followed Singapore’s experimental scenes closely since the 1990s.
I sent the three of them a letter containing a range of observations I had made (which may or may not be entirely accurate) and questions (admittedly thorny and intended to provoke), including the following:
The geographical location and Singapore’s historic reason-to-be as a trading post has instilled a sense of ephemerality — people come and go, ideas and traditions too — as well as a need to develop contacts with the exterior. The arts scene in general seems to be largely a reflection of whatever the current trading priorities demand. In what way does the current local sound art reflect the larger forces within Singaporean society? Since art is mostly orally traded, how are its traditions nurtured and developed?
Around 2010, the Government seems to have indicated a new task for cultural workers, including sound artists and musicians: to define — create or discover, stitch-up or steal — a “Singapore identity”. The Singapore Art Festival shut down two years while the think tanks were brewing. Will this funnel taxpayer money and (more importantly) peoples’ attention towards folkloristic or museal music, rather than to radical and/or intellectual sound art? At the same time, there is considerable commercial pressure to subsume music / sound listening into an experiential, multimodal, game-like and socially mediated lifestyle product. Are commercialization and identity-seeking two sides of the same coin — one side inflation-prone, and the other a possible counterfeit? Is there room for a “pure listening experience”, for example to electroacoustic music? Or is the future of sound art ineluctably intertwined with sculptural and visual elements?
Different kinds of creative people involved in sound art are entrepreneurs, programmers, academics, educators, curators and journalists. Which institutions nurture talent and bring audiences to meet new experiences? Where are the hothouses for developing ideas, craft, artistry, innovation and business?
The interviews, loosely structured around these themes, were made in January and February 2014. Our conversations often took unexpected turns (mostly for the better). I diligently transcribed the recordings, and each interviewee made corrections and additions, before we gently nudged spoken language a little closer to prose. I then brought out a pair of big scissors and a large pot of coffee, and made a cut-out collage, weaving the texts into the multilogue that follows. The idea has been to create an illusion of four people conversing with each other under the same roof. Deceit or not, at the very least, we all live and work on the same small island, somewhere in the deep southeast. I hope you will enjoy reading Sound Art Singapore.
Pete Kellock has a diverse background combining music, technology and entrepreneurship. He holds degrees in physics / maths and in music, as well as a PhD in Electronic Music. His professional experience ranges from writing software and designing electronic hardware to founding technology companies and mentoring young entrepreneurs. He founded and led muvee, a Singapore start-up that pioneered automatic video editing software; to date the company has shipped hundreds of millions of copies worldwide. His musical experience includes freelancing as a horn player in classical orchestras, playing and producing rock music, and writing electronic music in his home studio.
Zul Mahmod was an artist at the Singapore Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007) and an Associate Artist at the alternative art space The Substation. His practice signals a more encompassing and expanded visual arts sensory experience. He is the designer for the Singtel F1 Grand Prix Night Race trophy in Singapore.
http://www.luzart.net | http://soundcloud.com/zul-mahmod
Mark Wong entered into the world of visual art circa 2011 as a result of a practice that had thitherto revolved around experimental music practice, including electronic, electroacoustic and experimental music performance, compositions for film and dance, free-form radio shows and live DJ-spinning. Since 2011, his practice has veered towards conceptual and site-specific sound, video and object installations devised to encourage a more careful attention to the sonic environment, as well as to communicate the narratives and histories of spaces. Mark also writes on sound and music and has been published in The Wire, Substation Magazine and BigO.
Strong Experiences with Sound
[PerMagnus Lindborg] I would like to start by asking each one of you to describe a strong experience that you have had with sound art or contemporary music — something that made you go, “Wow! That’s what I want to do!”
[Mark Wong] If we must pick an event, I would say it was watching a film screening and concert by Margaret [Leng] Tan in mid-2000s, and a biopic of her by Evans Chan. 1[1. Evans Chan (Dir.), Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan, 2004 (documentary; 90 min.; USA / Singapore / Hong Kong).] She also performed a concert of pieces from Cage at the [National University of Singapore] Cultural Centre, including some prepared piano pieces and toy piano pieces. I remember Music for Works of Calder, which was performed along with the short video on the sculptor Alexander Calder, being particularly beautiful.
[Zul Mahmod] I was first introduced to sound art back in 2001 in Norway. I reached Molde and from there it was two hours by bus and ferry to get to a nice island called Una, surrounded by nature. You thought Singapore was small, this is smaller! There I learned computer music musing using Logic (before Apple). I thought it was quite fascinating, using computers to make sound, drum tracks, recordings. My sculpture background will always be there but my primary focus is still sound-based, like in my recent solo exhibition [at The Private Museum in Singapore], “Sonically Exposed”.
[Pete Kellock] Speaking of strong experiences, I’ve been asked to do a talk on Wagner’s Ring by Opera Viva. I’ve been listening to the Ring for years, but I wanted to justify taking time to dig deeper into it. “Note to self: next time I take on talking about music, try not to choose the longest work in music history!” [Laughter]
[PML] Mark, you write about sound and music, and you’re a practising artist as well. What’s your musical background?
[MW] It’s rock music. I did guitar in school, but was always looking for different kinds of sound. Some bands open up your world to new things, like nodal points into new realms. For me, it was Sonic Youth. As a rock band, they made an album called Goodbye 20th Century , a tribute to 20th-century avant-garde composers. Because of that album, I searched out Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, George Maciunas…
[PML] Pete, you also have a background as a rock musician. What’s your instrument?
[PK] The studio really. I’ve on occasion played synthesizer. When I was a student I played a monophonic lead-line synthesizer. But I always found rock music production far, far more interesting, shaping sounds in the studio — deciding, “should we move that rhythm guitar up one inversion? Is that the right reverb?” All of the million things you can do! As soon as I discover that kind of stuff I just loved it, it’s fantastic. When I did my PhD in electronic music I was writing music that was never as experimental or avant-garde as the university music people thought it should be, but way, way more avant-garde than my rock musician friends thought it should be.
History and People
[PML] You mentioned to me earlier that your first musical impression in Singapore, almost as you stepped off the boat, was stumbling into a rock bar. Tell us more.
[PK] It’s weird that I found this band playing in Tanglin Mall, just wandering around on my first night in Singapore. I saw a glass lift and figured I’d go up to get bit of a view, and when I came out, this heavy rock music poured out of a bar, so I thought, OK, let’s check this thing out. It turned out to be absolutely unique in Singapore, a bit like a dungeon. You may know the band, it’s called Heritage. Sadly their frontman Atwell Jansen — a fine vocalist, violinist and flautist — died in a bicycle accident last year. I think the remainder of the band is still performing. The used to do great progressive rock… influences ranging from Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd to Jazz. It was the sort of place that in any other city would have a lot of drugs. And in fact it was closed down a few months later and I heard a rumour that that was the reason. [Laughter]
[MW] There was a very stark official reaction against these sorts of cultures in the 1970s. They were associated with drugs, with illegal activity. So historically it’s been quite difficult to talk about, and it is only in recent years that memoirs are appearing. There is a book called Legends of the Golden Venus 2[2. Joseph C. Pereira, Legends of the Golden Venus: Bands that rocked Singapore from the ’60s to the ’90s (Times Editions, 1999).] that describes some of these nightclubs of the 70s and 80s. In the mid- and late 1980s there was a place called Anywhere Lounge and a big concert in 1987, organised by BigO magazine 3[3. “BigO (acronym for “Before I Get Old”) is Asia’s most respected rock magazine.” (BigO website)] — it must have been really radical to hold a gig with such music in Singapore then after the clamp down of previous decades! 4[4. The ReoCities webpage “Singapore Metal — A Look Into the Past” describes this event as a “rebellion to deconstruct the local rock establishment… a fire… incited supposedly by the four Chinese hardcore punk thrashers of Opposition Party, with their ripping performances in the memorable ‘No Surrender’ concert organised by BigO, at 30 May 1987, “Anywhere Lounge” in Tanglin Mall, which was arguably the first so-called ‘alternative concert’ of its kind. There were many bands there, playing ‘left of the dial’ alternative music.” (ReoCities, [2009?], Accessed 12 June 2014)]
Chris Ho’s band Zircon Lounge played there; they were very much influenced by Velvet Underground, transgressive in a sense. Chris is openly bisexual and on stage he would wear women’s clothing sometimes. He wrote about underground music culture in BigO. Myself, I did rock music reviews and features for them later on in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last two to three years before they closed down. When the magazine started in the mid 1980s, this was a time when the Singapore government was quite tightly controlling licensing and regulation of publications. There was a newspaper, the Singapore Monitor, which folded after a few years, and the writers were quite disillusioned, but they kept on writing and began distributing a photocopied fanzine called BigO! Chris was an important counter culture figure because he was a music critic in the Singapore Monitor and also wrote columns in BigO, and over the years, the audience grew with him and sought out new kinds of music as well. He’s still active and just released a new album, together with Leslie [Low] and Vivian [Wang] who are members of The Observatory. In fact, the band Pete mentioned, Heritage, also has a link with The Observatory because one of its later members, Dharma, went on to join The Observatory.
[PK] Vivian Wang is one of the driving forces. They started out as a rock band, fairly mainstream. But now they’re doing more and more interesting stuff, going further and further out. In a recent performance at The Substation they were joined by Bani Haykal playing bass clarinet. Dark, dark, doom rock with bass clarinet! And a relentless snare drum that reminded me of the second movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, like machine gun fire, very experimental. And recently they did some work with Gamelan instrument makers, creating specially tuned instruments.
[MW] The Substation tag line says it all: “A home for the arts.” There’s no stratification, like high arts, low arts, they even have rock music, which is why I went there a lot. Punk gigs as well, but also theatre and visual arts.
[PK] The Observatory, I love what they’re doing.
[PML] Any Wagnerian punk?
[PK] What The Observatory is doing is kind of in that Gothic tradition. Heavy metal has a lot in common with Wagner! But when I came to Singapore I discovered that soft rock was considered musically superior to hard rock. It’s the absolute inverse of the view in the West, where, generally speaking, more complex and interesting rock music is also harder and heavier. But I realized that many people here saw that differently: darker rock was seen as anti-social. That tended to blind people to the exciting new things that were being done in music.
[MW] During the 90s, there would be these full-day or 24-hour festivals at The Substation, and the programming was always mixed. There’d be some music and performance artists, people from The Artists Village too, like Yellow Man [Lee Wen] and Zai Kuning. Although I went for the rock bands, I ended up being exposed to other art forms, some very odd, and at least making me realise that there were these other things going on.
[PML] Was there a sound art scene in Singapore then?
[MW] I don’t think that term was used until the mid-2000s. In terms of the laptop music, there was a series called Strategies organized by George Chua in 2003 at The Substation.
[ZM] A bunch of us performed: Yuen Chee Wai, aspidistrafly, and Evan Tan, one of The Observatory members, was there with a laptop act. When I was in Finland, I saw the Avanti festival, and wrote to Kai Lam (we were doing performances together in the Pink Ark sound collective): “Maybe it’s time to have like a sound festival, 24 hours.”
[PML] And this became the Una Voce event?
[MW] An important event and very ambitious, 24 hours. But I think you cheated a bit, in the wee hours of the night there was supposed to be some DJ, but I heard it didn’t last all night? Did they actually play all the way through?
[ZM] We had invited this group of turntablists, 640 West, they whacked their equipment! [Laughter] We had only around 10 artists, including Koichi [Shimizu], a Japanese artist based in Bangkok and member of SO::ON Dry FLOWER. We had a $5000 budget from the National Arts Council. I told the artists, “OK, this is what we have for artist fees, this is what we can afford.” Luckily we had friends who could sponsor equipment, and [a bar at Substation called] Timbre actually sponsored the drinks. What we didn’t have then was the numbers of artists. Today there’s a lot more.
[MW] That was an interesting event — 2005, not even 10 years ago, and one of the first times you saw the words “sound art” highlighted in publicity materials. The Substation has always encouraged experimental arts, with artist-in-residence programmes, associate artists… The present artistic director [Noor] Effendy [Ibrahim] has created a lot of new programs, in music as well. They have this Tribal Gathering of the Tongue Tasters series in which they pair artists from totally different traditions, like improv Jazz drummer Darren Moore with Chinese classical Sa Trio 5[5. See Delfina Utomo’s interview with the artists about the event, “Tribal Gathering of Tongue Tasters: Sa Trio x Darren Moore,” Bandwagon, [May 2013?].]. Or indie rock band [Monster Cat] with Kai Lam, doing things with synths and pedals. The space is very experimental.
[PML] The series is curated by Bani Haykal and they’ve also featured Brian O’Reilly, who plays with Darren in audio-visual performance duo Black Zenith. In addition to performing, Darren and Brian have contributed a lot through their teaching at LaSalle [College of the Arts].
[PK] I’ve a feeling that over the past five years, this place has just exploded in terms of diversity and quality. There’s so much happening. Some of the foreigners have been here since the 1990s, like Michael Spicer, John Sharpley, Lonce Wyse and Eric Watson. Among Singaporeans, Tsao Chieh was a wonderful, multi-talented man who composed several acousmatic (“tape”) pieces and works for orchestra. There were others, such as Phoon Yew Tien, who wrote for classical ensembles. A lot of Singaporean composers trained abroad, like [Hoh] Chung Shih, [Ho] Chee Kong, and Joyce Beetuan Koh. It was the most common way then and perhaps up until now, but it’s beginning to change.
[MW] I met Song-Ming at NUS early on. He’s two years my senior and when we met he already had his own band going. That opened me up a lot.
[PML] Song-Ming studied abroad — Europe and Japan — but it seems he’s more frequently performing in Singapore now.
[MW] He currently has a solo exhibition at Gillman Barracks called “Logical Progressions”, which comprises of visual scores and video works. He is more known doing visual art, but really what he’s doing is visual art pieces about music.
[ZM] It’s good that he and also Bin [Ong Kian Peng] are doing a few things back here now. And Joel Ong. In Singapore you need to be consistent, so people know you actually exist. I think this new bunch of artists trained abroad is something very positive. They’ve opened up new perspectives of what a sound or media work is. It’s good they come back to share with fellow artist and the audience here.
[PML] Do you think that the “explosion of activity” around 2005 is associated with the frantic years of institution building launched by the 1999 “Renaissance City” plan? Within a short time-span, large infrastructures like the National Library, YST [Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore (NUS)], Esplanade Theatres and many others were mushrooming.
[PK] I was completely out of it for a decade while starting up muvee Technologies, clocking up 100-hour weeks. I basically suspended the rest of my life while doing that. So while most of the changes in the local music scene were happening, I was totally absorbed as an entrepreneur and CEO. But I think that during this time the Polytechnics were important. A lot of the teachers were straddling the two worlds of popular and more experimental music styles: at LaSalle, as mentioned, often teaching quite progressive styles, SOTA [School of the Arts], and NAFA [Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts].
[ZM] Parts of the sound art community never needed these institutions. Take noise music, doing very well, very connected in this region, people travelling between Vietnam, to Yog’ya, and Japan, a noise Mecca. Curiously, they never apply for funding. All is just DIY coming out of their own pocket money. I think they come from a very punk background, more radical. It’s good to just let them do it this way, bringing them into institutions defeats the purpose!
[MW] I come from a DIY scene, whereby if you want to organize a gig, you can do it yourself. You still need time, practice, you need to immerse yourself in the craft, the art, but there aren’t that many boundaries. You don’t have to go through an institution. You’re not following a score, or a conductor. When the YST Conservatory started in 2005 it was a new thing, but there was not much interaction per se between the Conservatory and the rest of the University. I did attend some performances, but again at that point in time, interests were quite different. I don’t think I found anyone in the conservatory circles interested in improvised music then.
[PML] That might be changing. Steven Miller, Ty Constant, and Peter Edwards have set up an ensemble called Ang Mo Faux to do improvised electroacoustic music. While YST doesn’t have a program for improvised music, they offer composition (though the admissions requirements explicitly exclude “popular genres”) and recording arts (as in audio technologies). The latter has modules in electroacoustic music, and the former is occasionally experimental, depending on the students, who are from an acoustically trained background.
[MW] I don’t come from a hierarchical institution of music training, but it’s not that I don’t love composed music. I’m interested in what’s happening. Maybe I don’t get the love back. [Laughter]
[ZM] There’s always a gap between the academics and people who’re actually in the scene. I notice that events happening at NUS or NTU [Nanyang Technological University] campuses are mostly research-oriented. We seldom see students coming to sound art gigs. Maybe one or two students will become part of the bigger arts and music communities.
[PML] Why is this so? If there’s a fence I’m sitting on the academic side of it, but I’m interested in breaking down barriers.
[ZM] There needs to be a middleman. I remember during my time, my lecturers were tending to the arts communities. They were still practising, and when they had shows, we had to go see the exhibitions.
[PML] You’re currently teaching at ADM [NTU’s School of Art and Design] and LaSalle. How do you go about introducing students to sound art?
[ZM] I think it’s important trying to get the students to know what’s happening, so that when they graduate, they’re not alone, because there are still people practising out there. During studies, they can make connections for collaborations sometimes. Some are just a bit too shy, maybe their career path is different, they don’t want to be an artist, they want to be a researcher or academic. So I think it will take a bit more time to create the crossover.
[MW] LaSalle is different, there isn’t the sense of elite art compared to maybe the YST Conservatory. Already the word “conservatory” sounds a bit stuffy, they have certain codes and conventions, rituals, and that’s partly why they’re removed from the rest of society. But you already know that!
[PML] Next year, I’m planning a continuation of the Symposium on Sound and Interactivity, but I want to connect more with the non-academic side. How could that be achieved?
[ZM] You should continue that symposium, it’s good. The possibilities are greater downtown. I think NTU is a bit too far away. Some people will go OK, but with an event in the centre of town there are more chances of attracting people to engage. You still need to include the noise community, sound in general. It will be more interesting having people exploring different kinds of art. I think it’s good to work together, the community is kind of small but you need to support one another. Then the whole thing will grow organically. I think there’s hope, just a matter of time.
EAM, Sound Art and Multimedia
[MW] Where we are right now, there are no strong traditions. There’s been no linear sound art tradition in Singapore.
[PML] Pete mentioned Tsao Chieh. By embracing computers [around 1990], I think he became Singapore’s first truly contemporary music composer. Can an artist be “contemporary” without a deep relationship with computation? Tsao Chieh seems to have been a singular, lonely figure at that time. He didn’t influence younger artists very much, perhaps because he never taught? Musician and engineer, he was an odd bird, working with advanced musical scales, temperaments, like Harry Partch or John Chowning, investigating harmonic principles. Jun Zubillaga-Pow has recently published an article about him 6[6. See Jun Zubillaga-Pow, “The Unlikely Composer: Tsao Chieh,” BiblioAsia 9/4 (January–March 2014), pp. 14–19.]. I would call his approach “purist”, something which I don’t see much in the present Singapore scene. I see a healthy development in media arts, but not in electroacoustic music or other sound art forms that don’t involve sculpture, dance or visuals. Where are the loudspeaker orchestra concerts?
[PK] Well, there’s quite a lot happening on the electroacoustic and acousmatic fronts. Last year Steve Miller put up a concert of acousmatic music and performed electroacoustic music with Peter Edwards and others. People who work in this general area of music include Philip Tan, Michael Spicer, Lonce Wyse, Damien Locke and Dirk Stromberg. And there are many more.
[MW] I enjoyed the 2003 International Computer Music Conference that was held at NUS. One of the first few times I experienced… the setting was at the UCC, big crowd of people staring at abstract video images, I was like, “Whoa, this feel like out of a movie, some utopian future.”
[PK] Within days of coming to Singapore, I met a group called EML (Electronic Music Lab) at NUS. They’ve been around for 30 years mostly doing stuff rooted in electronic dance music, but sometimes more experimental.
[MW] I was active with them for a year or so and learned a good number of things. But the members were going more for electro-pop, club music, while I was interested in early computer music and synthesis. We weren’t doing that at EML.
[PK] When it comes to acousmatic music, I’m not sure if the best place is in the concert hall — I think it’s the Web. I’m now disseminating my recent piece Exozoologica that way [on SoundCloud 7[7. See Kellock’s SoundCloud webpage.]] — and typically people are listening to it in headphones. And consider forms such as IDM, “Intelligent Dance Music”, which at its extremes is highly experimental and avant-garde to the point of meeting the contemporary classical people. For example, the London Sinfonietta has played music by both Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Some of the EML students are strongly influenced by these guys on the fringes of dance music.
[PML] Zul, when you work with loop-based sequencers, do you aim for record production or Web diffusion like Pete?
[ZM] I tried SoundCloud and MySpace but after a while I found I preferred creating a physical space for my sound work because people can feel the whole experience of that space. If you put it online, it’s via headphones; you don’t actually get a feel of what the sound is. For me the soundscape is site-specific for a particular space.
[PML] You got into using computers via ambient, beat-oriented music, then changed into a noise-oriented approach, and circuit bending of toys. That seems quite far from techno!
[ZM] I don’t actually play techno, but I like the fundamentals, such as creating a 16-bars base, but instead of drums I might use traffic sounds. When I make a 40-minute soundscape, I conceive it more like a journey, so in that in the ambience there’s noise elements. Not all the way, but in layers. My sculptures have a lot of found objects, and layering different materials together. So my approach to sound is the same as to sculpture. Also for visual work I like doing site-specific work. I make recordings by walking around the streets of Singapore, and build instruments, this is a resource bank. Raw sound that I can use or further manipulate with a computer in different contexts.
[PML] Sound art in Singapore is very often linked up to multimedia: visuals, sculpture or a spectacular act, such as Tara X. People are interested, so this has viability. Why has the multimedia approach been relatively successful in Singapore, while purist music much less so?
[ZM] Tara X is active in the noise scene, but she has moved on to the European circuit.
[PK] Are you questioning why so much contemporary music is combined with visuals, dance, etc.? I don’t think that’s due to commercial pressures, it’s just that for many people a more complete experience is one where there is multimedia, where it’s multi-sensory. In the age of YouTube and computer games (not to mention TV), people have come to expect that — a more complete event.
[MW] Yeah, with a visual spectacle you immediately grab an audience. Take Rizman Putra who performed at Una Voce, he does theatre but is mainly known for his rock band Tiramisu. They dress up in really camp costumes as if straight out of a theatre performance. I would have thought it’s quite a natural thing; things that are eye grabbing tend to grab your attention straight away. Is your question why the phenomenon exists?
[PML] I’m trying to understand the relation between the scenes of sound art and contemporary music composition. The latter never prioritized visual attractiveness, sometimes even rejected it.
[MW] Right, even in rock music, there is a visual component, it’s never been just about the sound. Whether it’s in performances or in the media-like LP covers, visuals have played an important role. For composition, visuals haven’t really played a primary role. And then there’s the purist or acousmatic approach to listening. But how do you get people’s interest, right?
[ZM] When you put a very strong visual element in a gallery space, the sound takes on a supporting role.
[PML] But you’ve made installations as purely sonic experiences, with no visual elements?
[ZM] Yes, the first time was in 2006 with W.O.M.B., a pure, holistic experience of just listening in a very comfortable space. (8) The year after I did Sonic Dome a.k.a. An Empire of Thought. 8[8. Documentation of these and other works by Mahmod are available on his Vimeo webpage.] How audiences respond to sound is totally depends on whether they’re sitting down or lying down comfortably. After 15 minutes of sitting, people get fidgety, they lose attention and some of their experience is just lost. Certain detail is lost.
[PML] Your approach reminds me of works by Lynn Pook, also Pierre Henry’s extended concert-events in the late 60s with audiences lying down. 9[9. For a preview of a recent event featuring Henry’s music, see Marie-Aude Roux, “L’oreille en apesanteur,” Le Monde, 17 September 2013. [Last accessed 13 June 2013]] But don’t you think people would actually fall asleep if they get too comfortable?
[ZM] It was part of my intention with W.O.M.B. The concept was a safe space, where you can go in just to chill out. Certain elements of the sound will somehow bring certain kind of memories. I focussed on sound more than visuals to make a space.
[MW] Isn’t the room already a visual space?
[ZM] That’s more relevant to a different phase of my practise. After the Venice Biennale, around 2009, I thought: “What if sound is purely physical, coming from musical objects, motors, in a very bright area?” No nicety about the lighting — just ambient, pure florescent light, with an industrial feel.
[PML] That setting would invite noisiness, grittiness…?
[ZM] I think some people couldn’t take those works I did. Others were immersed in that kind of situation — bright, industrial — they could still sit there. Different people react differently to the listening situation. I’ve always been fascinated by the Japanese æsthetic, also the German. In my current practice I’m looking at motors: kinetic, mechanical. Also a strong visual element. Not only for installation, also for dancers to control different sound objects or for audience members to compose on their own instead of me. I’m travelling to IAMAS [Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences] in Japan. It’s a personal research trip. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about robotic apps and interactive works.
[PK] Going back to this question of adding visuals, perhaps culture has something to do with it. I get the impression some cultures are more aural and some are more visual. Indian culture seems to me more aural: the music is tremendously sophisticated, but Indian painting mostly leaves me cold. There is visual art in India, but not much seems to have the same sophistication as their music. And Chinese culture seems like a mirror image of that — its visual art is extremely sophisticated, but I don’t hear the same sophistication in the music, at least not in the traditional music. Of course that may just be my ignorance! But anyway I think that some modern works for Chinese ensembles are changing that. Overall, in terms of sound, people generally seem less tuned in. Obviously this is making a broad generalization, I haven’t collected enough experience to support it any rigorous way — it’s just an impression.
[PML] After all your years of research and development in video technologies that led to muvee, in your own work you seem to be somehow closing the circle by coming back to electroacoustic music composition. Do you foresee also producing rock music?
[PK] In my piece Exozoologica, I’m drawn to this no-man’s land in between avant-garde — the contemporary classical experimental — and the world of ambient / rock / dance music. It’s a space between all these styles, an unexplored space where I feel there’s loads of potential to do new stuff. For me it’s important that music has an intellectual component, but also, absolutely, an emotional component. And ideally it has to break new ground.
[PML] You want a lot, maximizing all the channels of artistic communication!
[PK] That’s what the great tradition of Western classical music is about at its best: thematic development, counterpoint, etc. — the combination of a wonderfully sophisticated intellectual approach and deeply expressed emotion, with an effective dramatic shape driving the music forward. I find quite a lot (though certainly not all) contemporary classical music to be too dry. The concepts often have intellectual appeal, but it doesn’t draw me in emotionally. And a lot of it doesn’t sound very new either — for example a lot of highly dissonant music doesn’t seem to say much beyond what Webern, Boulez, Messiaen, Ligeti and others said half a century (if not a century) ago. At least that’s how it sounds to my ears.
[PML] Mark, you’ve just completed working on the exhibition Sound: Latitudes and Attitudes. It includes an archive that you’ve compiled, going back at least twenty years, showing that questions and experiments about sound art have been around for quite some time in Singapore. I thought the way you laid out documentary material it all out on a table was very interesting.
[MW] In all of society and in the arts, Singapore is going through a phase of trying to remember. I started out as a very hardcore music fan, and as such it was almost second nature to collect these ephemera of these things I’m interested in. But collecting heaps of stuff by yourself is just hoarding. Showing it in a public space activates it, gives it a new sense of life and makes connection to the wider public. Otherwise it’s just physical material, unseen and taking up dead space. These early sound events are part of a history of what took place: different ways of using sound. Consider the exhibition a first attempt. It gives us a perspective and an overview. It will be interesting to see how the various musicians and sonic artists will develop from here.
[PML] The catalogue has a picture of a piece of your own, called The Right to Free Speech (in Four Official Languages). What can you tell us about this?
[MW] It’s a modified, sealed book. The title is there on the cover: “John Cage: Silence, Lectures and Writings,” and there’s a headphone jack that comes out of the book. When you listen to it it’s actually Cage’s quote “I’ve nothing to say and I’m saying it, and that is poetry as I know it,” read by a computer in Singapore’s official four languages. So it’s a commentary on some aspects of Singapore’s constitution. The idea arose out of the conversations that were taking place last year in which the Singapore government held a lot of consultancy sessions with members of the public. On issues that have been pouring out through the media, whether about housing, infrastructure, immigration… I’ve always found sound political, because of the medium. Historically it has been in the shadows of the visual: hidden away, unnoticed, unless you take the time and attention to listen. Listening is always an undervalued sense. The visual is more prominent, it’s used for immediate effect. Sound always takes time, it’s a time-based art.
[ZM] I think nowadays audiences are different due to the influence of social media. The whole world is changing, new things coming out and everything is so accessible. Back then it was magazines or books. I see whenever I do an exhibition or performance there’s a new crowd. People who are not so exposed to this, but curious to know what sound art is about.
[MW] It’s again the awareness. Take film for example, there’s visual and audio, people tend to neglect the aural experience and rather to remember images. But in terms of how we receive information and emotional content, we know that sound is just as important in creating tension, moods, sensations. The argument is really that sound has been a very much neglected way of experiencing. So bringing attention to sound — amplifying it — is a political act.
Sound art in Singapore has indeed developed greatly in recent history, and the various “scenes” are growing more confident. A few long-running institutions such as The Substation have been crucial to providing opportunity to young artists, and audiences are catching on. Most sound art in Singapore involves multiple media, such as visuals, physical-sculptural installation or a spectacular performance act. This has not entirely forestalled expressions of acousmatic music and contemporary acoustic music, albeit these are mostly found in academic contexts. But this is of course not particular to Singapore.
In order to nurture traditions, their roots need to be investigated, understood, and traded. As Mark said: “Singapore is trying to remember.” Recollection seems an essential ingredient of quenching the general thirst for identity that all aspects of society are currently feeling. It is a young nation — a very small place — that is rapidly maturing. What greater responsibilities can we take on?
New generations of Singaporeans want to lead a good life that goes beyond materialistic concerns, and art experiences are seen as important. Now 49 years old, Singapore in 2014 has a fairly wide range of creative people involved in sound art — artists, entrepreneurs, programmers, academics, and educators. Some are homegrown and more are coming. Developing a “sound art society” (“sound” as in healthy!) is a duty not only for educational institutions, but just as much for curators, journalists, businessmen and -women, and obviously the artists and audiences — ineluctably intertwined — to work towards.
The author would like to thank two unnamed reviewers for close readings and valuable comments.
More to Read
Haykal, Bani and Joleen Loh (Curators). Sound: Latitudes and Attitudes. Exhibition, catalogue and performances (multiple authors). Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2014.
Wyse, Lonce and Joel Ong. “En asiatisk (media)tiger.” Nutida Musik 4 (2008), 40–45.
Zeelie, Tim. “Sounding Out Joel Ong.” [2012?] Available online at http://www.substation.org/sounding-out-joel-ong [Last accessed 13 June 2014]
Zubillaga-Pow, Jun. “The Unlikely Composer: Tsao Chieh.” BiblioAsia 9/4 (January–March 2014), pp. 14–19. Available at http://www.microsite.nl.sg/PDFs/BiblioAsia/BibAsia_v0904.pdf [Last accessed 13 June 2014]