Yuen Chee Wai
George Chua, Evan Tan and Yuen Chee Wai
Substation, July 19, 2003
does one describe an event at which nothing much happens except
for the sight and sound of three young men taking turns to hunch
over their respective laptops with dead-pan faces, to produce
three individual sets of sound compositions that can be generally
described as "sound art"?
can such sound compositions which defy all popular conceptions
of what music should sound like be considered as music?
Is it even art in the first place?
questions ran around in my mind as I watched the loose collective
of Yuen Chee Wai, George Chua and Evan Tan perform three different
sets of electronically-generated, improvisational pieces which
they put together by using such software as Pro Tools, Hyper Engine
is minimalism is the passionless, sexless and emotionally
blank soundtrack of the Machine Age, its utopian selflessness
no more than an expression of human passivity in the face
of mass-production and The Bomb. A kind of organized underachievement,
its characteristic pulse-rhythm is an artificial substitute
for the energy of conviction and its 'effects' due not to
any effort from artist or audience, but to a negative process
of deliberate self-denial. As a music without focus or hierarchy,
it's also without goal or struggle, as inert as the pre-planned
corporate lifestyle for which it is the perfect accompaniment.
From hippie to yuppie, minimalism is a drip-feed pseudo-art
for cultural bottle-babies."
Ian MacDonald, author of The People's Music, The New Shostakovich
and Revolution In the Head: The Beatles' Records and The Sixties.
event, as befitting the generally innocuous and unassuming demeanour
of the three players, began in a cramped little room opposite
the Ladies Room on the ground floor of The Substation. The
lights were switched off in the room where only seven or so persons
had congregated to watch this curious group perform. The set-up
was very simple: two Apple PowerBooks and another one, which looked
like an IBM ThinkPad, hooked up to a portable mixer/amplifier
bank with connections to two large speakers. The only lighting
for this whole event came from the LCD screens of the three computers
that were set up on an L-shaped desk that was adjacent to the
Chee Wai opened the evening with a kind of sonic linear narrative
that conveyed the idea of an emotional journey of sorts. It began
relatively soft and calm with a seemingly random series of beeps
and sustained high pitched notes followed by a gradual fade-in
of a low, modulated rumbling drone that formed the sonic bedrock
of the piece. The climactic middle portion of the set was somewhat
chaotic and violent in that it contained sudden bursts as well
as long-drawn barrages of noise alternating with short spaces
of silence or soft sounds.
this section segued into the final leg of the piece, which evoked
a light playful mood as expressed by melodic manipulations of
sine waves that were somewhat pleasing to the ear, but which were
interspersed with short disturbances of high pitched, atonal sounds.
All in all, a rather fantastic voyage of sound in which the experience
of travelling was more intriguing than its mysterious destination.
Chuas set was a sort of sound collage a random collection
of impressions made with what appeared to be various pre-recorded
environmental "found sounds" or snatches from various media like
film, TV or radio mixed together with an assortment of "live"
electronically-generated bleeps, bloops and several different
high pitched ringing tones. The resulting mix gave rise to suggestions
of bubbling, boiling water; the loud roar of jets or rockets taking
off, interjected with split-second bursts of what sounded like
samples of radio or TV broadcasts as well as video arcade-like
the whole, Chuas piece sounded as though he was splattering
various sounds together in a rather haphazard fashion upon a kind
of aural canvas. Which obviously brings forth comparisons to Jackson
Pollocks splatter paintings. But whereas the passion was
very evident in Pollocks work, Chuas piece, while
sonically interesting, came across rather cold and aimless. What
was Chua trying to achieve or convey? If it was meant to elicit
certain impressions or feelings, I have to ask, "To what end?
For what purpose?" If there is no coherent, underlying script
to bind all these disparate impressions together, really what
is the point?
Tans set was one unrelenting, undulating bombardment of
noise from beginning to end. It sounded like nothing short of
total war. It reminded this writer of the rumbling and screeching
machinery of tanks, machine-gun fire and exploding artillery in
a World War II movie. The onslaught only wound down towards the
middle of the piece where there seemed to be a lull in the fighting
with sounds of intermittent gunfire rattling in the distance.
This was followed by what appeared to be the sound of a warplanes
engines in flight with the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft shells
bursting all around it.
set ended with what sounded like frantic frequency dial-switching
on a radio set as a lone-surviving trooper desperately tried to
contact HQ in vain. The rest of the audience may have a different
interpretation of Tans piece, but I sure had a blast of
a time imagining myself in the thick of the battle as Tan sat
stony-faced with his laptop screen throwing an eerie white glare
on his face while he punched a few keys or clicked a few buttons
and chewed gum rather nonchalantly all throughout his tempestuous
evening ended with a laptop jam by the three performers that featured
a lot of reverb-rich, spacey effects and more loud, dissonant
and grating sounds that only served to further confound rather
than entertain this writer. On the whole the sound system provided
for this event was rather crude and rudimentary and so it couldnt
really relay all the subtle nuances in tone or sound-colour that
the performers were aiming for. Perhaps, if the sound production
was more sophisticated, the audience would have been able to come
to a more satisfactory appreciation of what these three performers
were trying to express.
jam was followed by a short dialogue between the three performers
and the audience in which turned up the obvious questions about
whether this was a musical performance or a simply a display of
noise. Chua, the unofficial spokesman for the group, responded
by saying that collectively and individually, the three of them
were merely developing "strategies" within this relatively new
medium of aural expression to find out how certain sounds work
together and to fashion such sounds into a recognisable form just
as a sculptor cuts or moulds his material to turn it into shapes
that are readily identified as works of art.
added that the public is still not quite accustomed to recognising
such sound compositions as works of art or music as such an approach
to the experience like the one that was just presented in Strategies
is quite new to the public that was more familiar with works that
had a more clearly defined harmonic or melodic structure.
spite of the three performers explanations of their methods
and their work, this writer went home with more questions, chief
of which were the following that begged, "But is this art? Can
these performers be taken seriously? What is the whole point of
this exercise, really?" This all leads me to conclude that if
George Chua and company achieved anything at all with this event,
it was to start challenging the audience to question their familiar,
received notions of what music or art is and to cast aside all
popular expectations that the sole intent of every expression
of organised sound is to entertain.
Will "sound art" ever be established or accepted as a legitimate
art form just like performance art or abstract expressionistic
painting has been accepted by the arts-appreciating public in
the last 30 or so years? Only time will tell. Ivan Thomasz/
Pictures by Ivan Tan