George Chua

Evan Tan

Yuen Chee Wai

Featuring George Chua, Evan Tan and Yuen Chee Wai
The Substation, July 19, 2003

How 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"?

And 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?

These 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 and Pluggo.


"The truth 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.

The 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 entrance.

Yuen 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.

Consequently, 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.

George Chua’s 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 noises.

On the whole, Chua’s 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 Pollock’s splatter paintings. But whereas the passion was very evident in Pollock’s work, Chua’s 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?

Evan Tan’s 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 warplane’s engines in flight with the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft shells bursting all around it.

Tan’s 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 Tan’s 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 set.

The 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 couldn’t 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.

The 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.

Chua 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.

In 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

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