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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Podcast 69: Playfreely by The Observatory

Nabilah Said chats with Cheryl Ong, Dharma and Yuen Chee Wai from The Observatory about their free improvisation music festival, Playfreely, which features free improv musicians from Southeast Asia and the larger region. The 7th edition of Playfreely takes place from 28 to 29 November 2019 at 72-13 on Mohamed Sultan Road. Artists involved in Playfreely include Wukir Suryadi from Jogjakarta, Akilesh and Natalie Alexandra Tse from Singapore, Yii Kah Hoe from Kuala Lumpur as well as The Observatory.

Duration: 27 min

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Podcast Transcript 

Nabilah Said (NS): Hi, hello, and welcome to the ArtsEquator podcast. My name is Nabilah Said I’m the editor of ArtsEquator and today joining me is Cheryl Ong, Yuen Chee Wai and Dharma from The Observatory. Today, we’re actually going to talk about Playfreely, which is an annual music festival focusing on improvised and experimental music. And I’m very excited to talk about it. It actually happens on the 28th and 29th of November at 72-13 on Mohamed Sultan Road and it’s organised by The Observatory which is why they’re here talking to me today. So hello, guys. Can you start by telling us, because Playfreely, this is actually the seventh year of the festival, right? So what is it actually and what’s new this year?

Dharma (D): Playfreely is it started off as actually a series of performances back in 2011, so it was a series of six performances that we actually held in Goodman, every fortnight. And the understanding of Playfreely was that it’s a performance on presenting improvised music, free improvised music. And so yeah, we started in 2011, as a series with six different performers. And then from 2012 onwards, it became an annual festival. So right up to 2019. So, we’ve been having yearly and it’s still, the main focus is still… in fact I won’t say “the main focus”, the focus is still on free improvisational music.

NS: And for you like even when you’re doing it for the first time, like what was your ambition for it, was there any kind of objective when you were first starting out and has that really changed?

D: I think the ambition is still the same, to provide a platform for free improvisers. It started about free improvisers in Singapore. But then yeah, in that way the ambition has evolved to create this platform where we bring bring about free improv musicians from all over the world, those we can afford, and to put them together with regional and also local improvisers. So that’s still the main ambition, just kind of evolved a bit.

NS: Yeah, maybe gotten bigger?

D: Yes, yes yes.

NS: Okay. So this year’s theme is “The Transparency of Turbulence”. What is that?

Yuen Chee Wai (CW): The transparency of turbulence. I mean, it’s just an idea that I kind of like, that turbulence is something that always exists, but you can’t see it until, until you feel it until someone tells you about it. So, I mean, I thought of this title when I was on a flight back and then I kind of remember looking at– because I like looking at flight– plane charts. So I always observe how come certain points where all these planes start doing detours. And only later that I find out that there’s a relay that the front plane will tell the planes at the back that there’s turbulence, so everyone will start to follow. So it’s the kind of turbulence where you can’t see but you can eventually feel it. And people tell you about it, you learn about it, and then you deal with it. So looking at this, it’s just an idea to maybe try to understand the spirit of improvisation. How you deal with impetus, how you deal with music coming your way, and how you react and respond to it. And also in this political climate that we’re currently in, in the world, it’s also a kind of turbulence that we deal with, as artists and musicians, and practitioners, how then do we navigate this kind of terrain, this kind of territory, when we’re faced with it?

NS: And do you think like, the artform that you guys practice? Do you think that that’s a good way to have a conversation about turbulence, as you’ve mentioned, especially with regards to like, regional, kind of things that happening in the region?

CW: I mean, sometimes we don’t necessarily need to to really vocalise or talk about it, but the act of coming together and having a sense of solidarity and a sense of understanding is actually good enough to show the powers to be that, that we can coexist without your interference. That we can coexist without your ideology, your sense of greed. So, that is how actually as musicians or artists, we find a kind of bond that we can communicate with each other without this kind of political difference.

D: I mean, I like to add that when these musicians come here, we do exchange notes about what’s going on in their country, what’s going on in our country and what is a better way forward, you know? For us as human beings.

NS: Just to have that conversation.

D: Yes.

CW: It’s also you know, you give your support for your friends who are actually going through certain kinds of political struggle, and see how we can offer help in, in certain ways in spreading certain words or certain ideas or certain voices for the marginalised, or for those who are in need.

Cheryl Ong (CO): I think that’s also one of the main impetus, why we do Playfreely every year. It’s that constant exchange with other musicians. Apart from just playing music, we do talk about things. We talk about how their scene is like in their country. We share our views on the political situation all over the world. We share views about food, you know, and things like that. And it’s really, for us, a meaningful type of exchange. Yeah. Rather than just a touch and go thing. Yeah.

NS: And I suppose that everything kind of feeds into each other.

CW: Yeah.

D: Yeah.

NS: Because you’re talking about food, but there’s also politics and there’s also like, everyday life kind of thing.

D: Because it also goes with improvisation when you come there and you sit down for, whatever, five minutes, half an hour, you’re going to play something that you’ve not totally practised or anything, just whatever comes. So whatever that comes is all about you, your experience from the day you’re born until the point where you’re sitting there. So that’s the complete picture.

CO: And I think, for a lot of us, or for a lot of musicians, it is our tool for communicating how we feel, or how we think about certain things. I mean, we are not writers, you know, we may not be good with words, at times. So sound becomes a representative of–

D: Our main vocabulary.

NS: So what do you love the most about the kind of music that you make?

D: Nobody can say it’s wrong.

CW: Really?

CO: Nobody can say it’s right either.

D: So they can’t penalise you, musically for anything. Just being an idiot. (laughter) I think there’s a sense of freedom, of coming there and expressing totally, with no script, no, no score, anything. You just come there and you’re conversing with this other person or few other people in that setting, in that sense of freedom. It’s very liberating. Yah and it’s very inspiring as well, I would say.

NS: I guess there’s also a lot of honesty in it, right?

D: Definitely.

NS: How you feel in the moment. To kind of take it back to the festival, right. Who are some of the artists that you guys are bringing in and also like, how did you choose them? Is it people that you know and you’ve worked with, or like people you’ve admire, or…

CW: In certain points in time we’ve encountered all these artists with our work. Some are our, kind of like our musical heroes. Some are peers. Some are acquaintances whom we’ve worked with, whom we’ve programmed, whom we’ve played with in our travels, in our projects. So I guess that’s actually a recurring motif for Playfreely, we try to also present people whom we like and whom we feel that Singaporeans should take some time to listen to, or to discover. So, yeah, most of them for actually this year, some we’ve worked with before, and some we would like to work with in future and that’s kind of like our criteria. And also looking at musicians who are predominantly, for this year, predominantly Asian.

NS: Okay, so some years they’re not all Asian?

CW: Yes, some years a mixture.

NS: So for this year, are there any names that you’ve not actually worked with it but you’ve invited?

CW: We’ve worked with all of them in certain capacities. Yeah, yeah.

NS: Okay. Can you talk about some of the Southeast Asian artists who”ll be part of the festival? Give us maybe a short intro for people who don’t really, might not know them.

CO: So this year in terms of Southeast Asian artists we have from Indonesia, Wukir Suryadi, who is one half of Senyawa. Most people know Senyawa.

D: I wonder why. (laughter)

CO: And from KL, there is Yii Kah Hoe. Who is a composer, and he also plays wind instruments and the Chinese flute, the xiao. And then there’s Natalie Alexandra Tse from Singapore, who plays the guzheng, and then–

D: Akilesh.

CO: Akilesh, who plays the mridangam, also from Singapore, and then…

CW: Us.

CO: Us.

CW: We’re almost Southeast Asian.

CO: I think that rounds up the Southeast Asian contingent.

NS: There are two days, right, the festival? How are they formatted, how’s the programming like?

CW: Both days are different. First day, we’ll focus more on solo and duo works. We’ve kind of worked out a system and the structure between the artists, and seeing who works with who, who pairs up with who ideally. And then on the second day , we work more on trios and quartets. On the first day, we also culminate in an ensemble work. So there’ll be the solos and duos and then it culminates in an ensemble. Yeah. Whilst the second day will more be trios, quartets.

D: Every artist performs every day.

NS: Okay. How do you decide who gets to perform with who? Is there a Randomizer?

D: We just did it last week. We actually did the programme last week and considering what will be more interesting, who would work well with the other and the kind of instruments, the volume that they play in, all these things.

CW: The Dharma Algorithm.

NS: It’s kind of interesting because you guys put in kind of a curatorial position almost, to decide how the night will go, or the day will go for people. How do you find that aspect of it, because it’s not the music-making aspect of it right, it’s totally different.

CW: Yeah, that part is always a challenge. I mean, it’s a bullet that we have to bite because if we don’t take that first move, no one will take the first move. And then you end up, after soundcheck, everyone just looking at each other and not knowing what to do after that. So, we just make a rough guide as to okay, this goes first, second, third, fourth. And of course, we will eventually present this list to all the musicians and ask if they’re comfortable with this, and if they’re not, then we’ll switch it around. If someone feels strongly that that he or she should play with another person or whatever, yeah, will change it around definitely. But this just works as a guide to move things along.

NS: Some structure is needed.

CO: And I think we have kind of discovered that after years of doing this, because when we leave it completely open and sometimes, you know, some of the musicians have never met each other before it becomes quite like… some tend to be a little shy or reserved. And…

NS: They just need to get things started?

CO: Just to get things started. Of course people can object and we always leave it open, you know?

NS: Is there like a feature of the festival that’s been constant? Like a certain programming thing or an element that keeps people coming back?

CW: Every year we change it up very, very differently. So, yah last year…

D: …was three days right?

CW: Yeah, last was three days but focusing more on like solos and we also had a short residency last year.

CO: Right. Yah.

CW: And then the year before was also ensemble work. I mean… this year…. Yeah, I guess there was this expectation of the ensemble work, which the audience kind of told us last year that they miss, that ensemble work. So, this year we, we took the bother of reintroduce– or bringing back the ensemble work. I think they seem to think that that’s a feature. Yeah, so maybe that’s it.

NS: What’s the ensemble work like?

CW: Where everyone plays together. Without a conductor.

NS: Interesting. And usually what happens?

D: A lot of noise. A cacophony.

CW: A cacophany of sounds noise, strange rhythms, music. But sometimes things come together and sometimes they fall apart and then they come together again.

D: Integrating and disintegrating and…

CW: Yeah. So it’s always up to the artists, depends on who’s presenter, who’s listening to who. So it’s always quite unpredictable.

CO: I think that’s the interesting part about Playfreely. Basically listening to improvisation or playing, you know, it’s like, there’s a certain level of unexpectedness and surprise. So even for us, we don’t know what we are going to hear on the day itself. So when people ask us, what do you expect or what should I expect as an audience member? We don’t really know how to answer that question.

D: Expect the unexpected.

CW: Yah because everyone is– I mean, Playfreely right, so listen freely–

CO: Or people will ask which day shall I come for, or which day will be better, and like… er….

NS: For the uninitiated, right, who’s never been for this kind of festival or even listened to this kind of music, how would you describe this experimental, improvised music scene?

CO: It’s just… original music, I would say.

CW: This kind of music has been blossoming, flourishing in Europe, in Japan and in America for like, many, many years. I mean since since the ’60s till now, and by virtue of the fact that it’s around probably means that it has some kind of holding power. So for the uninitiated, it’s best to come with an open mind, maybe, maybe listen to some of the individual musicians first. Check out their links, check out their music and then come and see them do something that they’re not that familiar with as well. I mean, it’s also seeing them out of their element and seeing them adapt to a different kind of expression, but using the same vernacular, the same music vernacular and expressing it in different way. So, it’s interesting for, I mean, for myself as an audience, I like to see things like this unfold, you know, seeing people come out of their elements and adapting to it in various situations.

D: I would describe free improvisation also as, I mean I read this book, as the very first genre to exist.

CW: Yes.

D: Music started with free improvisation. So maybe people can think of that.

NS: That’s cool, I like that. How would you describe the scene in Singapore?

CW: It’s growing. I think actually over the past few years it’s grown a lot more. There are quite a lot more younger players becoming active. They’re looking towards experimental music and expressing themselves in experimental music. Even in rhythmic club music formats, they’re bringing in elements of improv and performance inside. So looking at thr more general or broader scheme of things, it looks like Southeast Asia over the past maybe three, four years, has been growing a lot in this field. Fueled by, of course, like Indonesia, they have a very, very vibrant scene there. In Singapore, we’ve been doing a lot of activities over the past few years. And yeah, connecting up to even for the free improv scene in Kuala Lumpur, you know they have a small scene there but it’s growing as well. So it’s, I mean, looking at Singapore’s experimental music in this region, yah. I think we play quite a big part in galvanising the scene.

NS: Why do you think like, you mentioned that in the last few years there’s more younger people, why do you think that’s so?

CO: I think younger people are more, probably, a lot more adventurous in terms of what they… maybe they don’t think so much. They just do it. Yeah. But coming to that, I think, yes, the scene might be growing and all that. But in terms of audience base, it’s still quite challenging. We seem to be– yah, it’s quite a small circle and we go to each other’s gigs and stuff like that. So it’s a small circle of people. And it would be nice to kind of, like open it up to new audiences and, but maybe it’s the whole, maybe people also find when it’s experimental or improvisational in nature, it’s hard to understand. Yeah. So I think in recent years, we’ve been trying to rectify that. Or maybe explain more, you know, if people are open to listening to, let’s say folk music, as Dharma said, right, you know, improvisational music is really the start of all types of music. So if you’re open to listening to that kind of music, you should be open to…. Yaah, it’s not that scary.

CW: No, because even like for classical music. First they improvise and then they score it. Yeah. So eventually the essence is still in improvisation. And back to the question on why, maybe the younger people are catching on more, it’s because also I feel that technology has given them more of a platform in two ways. One way is musical instruments become more easily available at cheap–

D: Affordable prices.

CW: And affordable prices. So they can buy more to try without error and error of purchase or if they feel that I can’t use this, there’s a means to sell it. So that idea of experimentation has increased a lot. Two, is also the ease of putting out material. So things like SoundCloud, or YouTube, allows them to just simply record something, put it out or even if they have a digital album, they can put it out on BandCamp so the risk factor is lower now. So maybe that’s– and circulation and distribution. Basically all these are tied in, how or why younger musicians are coming, more and more.

NS: Was it very different when you guys were….

All: Yah, yah.

D: It was so expensive just to record. Yah.

CO: And I think it’s also the ease of information. Like you go on YouTube, you go on SoundCloud. You go on BandCamp, you can listen to other musicians from all over the world. Whereas last time was really physical. Yah, Not so easy to get, not so easy to find.

CW: Networks are also getting stronger. Networks in a sense, where if someone wants to tour the region, you know, there are all these networks of organisers. Like I said, Indonesia, you want to tour Indonesia, you contact this person, this person, this person and you can link up a tour or Southeast Asia you can easily just link up a tour. So, yeah, people are getting connected more and more these days.

NS:  So what keeps you guys going?

D: Stubbornness. (laughter) You know, I think this is what we like to do, definitely. If not we won’t be here. So challenging. Sometimes it’s so difficult. It really, it’s what that rocks our boat, I guess? And to a certain extent, I personally feel this is my calling, to create difficult music like this. So that’s why we keep coming back, keep relentless.

CO: I think at some level it is also a certain form of resistance lah, to the system. So yah, that’s why we this.

NS: It’s like what you can do, right? You do what you can do.

CW: I mean, you come up with a new challenge, you find something difficult. You try to overcome it. You set a particular benchmark and then hoping for, not hoping but, you know, there’ll be people who listen, who reference it. And then hey, I like what they’re doing for this part, this kind of sound or whatever, and maybe they can take some of that and put it into their practice and use it in their way. And then yah, so this entire ecology of, of exchange of ideas that is necessary for the scene to actually grow more or flourish more.

NS: Well, on that note, I’m going to end it here. Thank you so much for talking to us about your work and about Playfreely as well. That’s happening on 28 and 29 November at 72-13. So, yeah, thank you.

All: Thank you very much. Thank you.


Playfreely, organised by The Observatory, takes place from 28 to 29 November 2019 at 72-13 on Mohamed Sultan Road in Singapore. More info here. Tickets go for $35/night, $49 for two nights. 2-day tickets will be available until 26 November 2359 (GMT +8), after which only single day tickets will be sold. Tickets can be purchased here.

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