Saturday, 11 May 2013

Unform (Solo / Duet) | Collaboration with T.H.E Dance Company

"Un-form began as a burning question I had to ask myself. The question concerned my role as an artist; the validity and value of such a profession to myself and in the context of the society. I extended these questions to the dancers..." Kuik Swee Boon // Performance Programme

Below is an excerpt from the 12 minute piece of music I wrote for Kuik Swee Boon's Unform, one of three works that featured in Solo / Duet at NUS Arts Festival 2013. Kuik worked closely with dance-artists Sherry Tay, Lee Mun Wai and Jessica Christina to choreograph a dynamic piece of contemporary dance that brought the audience in to the interior world of the dance-artists, revealing their individual journeys and the burning questions they have as artist in relation to wider society.

Process / Methodology

Being keen to further expand my understanding of the relationship between sound and the body, I lept at the opportunity to work with Kuik Swee Boon on this piece! During our first few meetings Swee Boon explained the intension behind the work, shared the material and choreography that they collectively created so far, as well as expressing how he envisaged the music to interact with the dance in terms of dynamics, structure and feeling.

There would be three pieces of music within Unform, each helping to create a window into the personal narratives explored by each dance-artist; Lamb's Cotton Wool for Mun Wai, Fun's Some Nights for Sherry, and the third would be my take on an Indonesian folk song entitled Sing Sing So:

Swee Boon gave me an open brief of freely reimagining Sing Sing So as an electronic dance music composition, bringing its relevance as a old song from Jessica's homeland into the present. The intention was not to create a nostalgic link to the past, but rather to use the act of reinterpreting the piece as a metaphor for Jessica's journey from her point of origin to establishing herself as contemporary dance-artist based in Singapore; the process of becoming.

A sing sing so….
O boat & wind
Please bring me to my
Maternal uncle's house
To meet my soul mate who is
Bethrothed to me
My heart do not be sad
If she has yet to exist
Your luck will brighten
As bright as the sun
When the time comes

To me, the sentiments of unity within the lyrics of the song (above), could be interpreted from a Jungian point of view, where the union of masculine and feminine forces becomes an allegory for the individual integrating with the dormant, subconscious parts of their psyche to achieve self-realisation. To me, creative practise is an integral part of self-realisation; it is the process of individuation, of becoming who you are in relation to the external world, through lucid encounters with your subconscious.

As I thought more about the intention of Unform and its relation the theme of the song, I began gathering material and developing a direction for the composition. I decided to loosely play off the imagery of going out to sea and gently gliding beneath the waves, conceiving this descent as a metaphor for traversing the boundary between the conscious / unconscious. This device could be a possible route to drawing the audience into the psyche of the artist; the place where, as creators, we have to search for true intention, impetus and determination to persevere and make work that will meaningfully connect with others, as well as helping us to develop as a human being. 

Using ones deeper self as a resource for empowerment is particularly relevant when faced with constrictive or oppressive environments or situations. However, I feel this 'inside-out' approach is only appropriate when the individual views their existence in connection with all conscious beings within a shared context, and never in isolation.

In terms of reinterpreting the musical content of Sing Sing So, I kept things quite simple by; 1) playing variations on the melodic lines from the verse and chorus using found sound samples and jaw harp (which I later processed digitally), and; 2) responding to the main groove of the original using layered, descending sine wave bass to create a little extra rhythmic movement.

With each progressive meeting / rehearsal of the Unform ensemble, Swee Boon and I cultivated a much clearer dialogue, sharing our progress and giving honest, critical feedback to one another. I filmed each session, as well as making notes and sketches as reference to work from back in my studio.


In response to the dynamism within the choreography I felt the form of the music needed to capture a sense of spatial depth and ambiance, and contain subtle rhythmic articulation to respond to the movement well. Ideally a sensitive balance would have to be achieved between the sound and body in space, to form a unified dialogue capable of expressing the intension of the piece. The finished work definitely made hearty strides towards this goal within the timeframe, but I feel there is certainly more room to explore this in greater detail in future collaborations.

Visual Scores

During the process of fleshing out the structure and details within the piece I made a couple of visual scores. I always find this is an extremely useful method of ideating around the structure of a composition; it gives me a different way to think around the form, trajectory and transformations of sound within a piece and their structural relation to each another.

*More on visual scores in future posts*

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Arrival Reception | Collaboration with Mike HJ Chang

"The door is an integral part of architecture and it is deeply embedded in our psychology (security, home, access, etc) it is the demarcation between inside and outside, public and private, unfamiliar and familiar. Arrival Reception aims to investigate the subtle processes of the event of transition by extending and emphasizing this liminal space. The question then is not "what is behind the door" but "what is in the door". Using different elements in the installation, Arrival Reception would suggest narratives set in the context of a dwelling (private home) in Singapore public housing unit. Viewers of the installation would encounter "transition" in a physical sense as they slowly embody the role of a guest to that of a host." Mike HJ Chang // Artist Statement

Process / Methodology

I had the pleasure of collaborating with Mike as a sound designer / composer for his work at Gillman Barracks, Singapore, which featured in  'Engaging Perspectives: New Art from Singapore' exhibition from January 26th - March 31st 2013.

Mike gave me an open-ended brief of 're-interpreting the sound of knocking' for a 5.1 surround sound set-up within his installation. As stimuli Mike provided images of drawings that would be in the constructed space, some of his writing about the work, as well as sketches and plans describing the function and flow of the space. 

Given the short time frame for this work I had to decide on my source material and direction for the composition fairly fast. Having just acquired a 'broken' upright piano (thank you T.H.E crew!) I began thinking whether or not, after a little 'fixing', it would be a suitable sounding body to generate a variety interesting and relevant material to work with.
Well, only one way to find out!

The 'fix' was simple (with a little help from Billy & Yang Jie); dismantle the front of the piano and remove the non-functional action, to expose its glourious innards! Having direct access to the strings, both for playing and micing, would allow me to capture the resonance of the body and strings in greater detail proceeding an impact - knocking, for instance.

'What resonates through the body' could play off Mike's idea of 'what is in the door', I thought.

After a few session improvising with the piano (using various implements) I got down to recording setting up a mic at the base of the piano.

From here I reviewed my material, editing and categorising that which had potential. The categorisation fell into three broad categories; single knocks, harmonics, gestures, followed by a short descriptors for each file - e.g. knuckle-hard, strum-gold, chopsticks-acceldash, etc - 'You've got to have a system'!

So, with all my material prepared and my speakers set up for 5.1 (surround) I began ideation around the theme and images provided, with these three  compositional mantras in mind; 1) keep it simple; layering, overlapping and looping of material to create more dynamic gestures / subtle ambiances, 2) apply a minimal approach; makes use of intervals of quietness / silence, 3) play with spatial dynamics; movement, placement and depth (using reverb) within the 5.1 set up.

I approached the composition in quite an instinctive and linear manner, in the sense that I allowed each knocking moment / gesture suggest what sort of knock might come next; in other words, within the framework I set myself I let the material guide me. You may hear within the composition itself sometimes I subvert expectation too: If you listen to the excerpt below on headphones you can get an impression of this, however this aspect of the piece is more apparent within the installation itself because of the spatial dynamics afforded by the 5.1 set up.

Mike and I decided on the 5.1 set up (below) early on, so I could proceed to experiment with different variations of sound activity and spatial movement as I was composing. I tested an early draft of the piece within the installation space itself, once the system had been put in place correctly. After listening and making notes, I returned to the studio for the final few session of refining the piece in time for the opening.

Just a quick note; technical information on how to make a surround DVD using compressor and DVDSP can be found here.

Speaking of 5.1, it was a real pleasure to compose within it again! The last time I worked with surround sound was for my installation Sonorous City (2009). There's a lot of room for ideation when working with sound in 3-dimensional space, due to the fact that it's particularly effective at enveloping the listener within an aural experience that is closer to how we hear in the real world (as in Sonorous City). 

For Arrival Reception, 5.1 served its purpose in a more figurative way; a means to reflect and transform the act of knocking across the physical space within the installation, in parallel to Mike 'extending and emphasizing' the liminal space of the door.

From a psychological point of view I find the perceptual mutation of space fascinating - seemingly, it is always vulnerable to the individuals subjective projections. Perhaps the lucid transformation and reconfiguration of space within dreams can indicate just how much of our subconscious imbues space with our individual fragments of memory and associated emotions.

Amidst the writing of this piece, a scenario conjured itself within my mind... I imagine lovers, standing either side of an open door, passionately arguing with searing, salacious tongues. Each progressive utterance digs deep into the flesh of the other and leaves a bloody tear where it exits. The lovers have ripped themselves apart from one another with the weight of their words, just as weight of their words brought them together. Whilst each remains visible to the other through the open door, the perceptual disparity between them suggests that the door has not only been closed, but bolted shut. In this lucid moment where the illusory cloud of desire begins to dissolve, they know exactly where each other stands even if they're unable to see eye to eye.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Theatre Street | Soundscaping the Past

"Drive is an exhibition on wheels that coincides with The Substation’s 3rd Experimental Film Forum. With the proliferation of portable media players, smart phones and tablets, there is a growing trend of mobile viewership. Drive brings the gallery out onto the road and extends this mobility onto exhibition making. Investigating this new form of mobile viewership, in relation to a transitional and mobile space within the cityscape." Kent Chan // Curator Statement

My contribution to Drive took the form of a soundscape composition inspired by a particular street in China Town where Chinese Opera in Singapore originated from...

Wayang, a form of Chinese musical theatre, was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants arriving in the late 1800's. With its growth in popularity during this period many theatres were built centred around Chinatown. One such theatre was Lai Chun Yuen which existed from 1887 - 1927, at 36 Smith Street, also known as Theatre Street to the older generation.


The composition you hear sources material from an old Chinese opera record I discovered at Thieves' Market (Sungei Road), combined with various personal recordings of Singapore's soundscape from more recent times. To me the piece functions as a wormhole into the past; transporting the listener through the ambient remnants of a Wayang performance captured on vinyl, to a fleeting scene from the aural memory of Smith Street, re-imagined through sound.

Curated by Kent Chan and featuring the works of 9 artists: Tan Pin Pin, Jeremy Hiah, Debbie Ding, Perception3, Zai Tang, Ayano Hattori, Yuzuru Maeda, Mike HJ Chang, this exhibition ran on 9-10th & 16-17th June 2012.