Duration: 21 min
Ng Sze Min, a young emerging music composer and producer, whips up a song based on Akanksha’s teenage poetry, and shares about the other projects that she has worked on as part of Artwave Studio, which she runs together with her partner – aside from her personal practice composing audio plays (which can be found on Spotify). Artwave Studio is interested in interdisciplinary collaborative creative practices, melding sound art with other artforms such as literature and performance, and aspiring to be a space “for everything sound related in the arts to convene.”
Tune into the interview x songwriting session and find out more about what Artwave Studio does here.
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Podcast Transcript[Sze Min strums and halts halfway to rummage for a pen.]
Akanksha: Welcome to the new episode in our Fresh Blood series. Today I’m speaking with Ng Sze Min, a young Singaporean musician and sound artist who is just a year fresh out of the Melbourne University with a degree in interactive composition and her music studio ArtWave goes beyond the conventional ideas of the practices and products of a music studio, and it’s interested in interdisciplinary creative practices across different art forms and genres. Already so far she’s worked on projects adapting prose and poetry with music as well as making music for theatre and film and she’s here to share more about what she does and also give us a little sample.[Sze Min strums while Akanksha continues speaking.]
Akanksha: So we’re going to be doing a little on-the-spot poetry singing. What happened was that before the interview Sze Min asked me to bring in a poem written by me for her to sing on the spot. I haven’t written a poem since I was a teenager so I went to dig up my juvenilia and found a little poem that could be interesting to put to music. So I made some slight edits and we both have it now before us. What you’re going to here is completely impromptu, improvised music; Sze Min has never seen this poem before, and is going to be singing completely off the cuff. So take it away.[Sze Min begins strumming.]
Sze Min: So I’m thinking of… I’m going to begin with this part, I’m going to start with that.[Sze Min begins singing, figuring out along the way where the melody and words meet together with Akanksha. They decide on an ending together and eventually drift into conversation about ArtWave Studio.]
Sze Min: Hello. I’m Sze Min, and thanks for having me. Artwave Studio was started because I work very closely with my partner, and he has skills that can compliment my skills. So while I like to compose and collaborate he can deal with the technical bits. So we found that we can work together. Instead of producing under two separate names we decided to come under a studio. So with the studio we’ve written for theatre and film but my personal interest is really in creating audio plays and stories.
Akanksha: You wrote on the website that when it started you you wanted it to be “a centre for everything sound related in the arts to convene”. What inspired this decide to intermingle with other disciplines like literature and other forms?
Sze Min: I really enjoy collaborations: the learning of the kind of language that each discipline uses, learning how to work with it and then bringing bringing my set of skills to the table. So I really want to see how music and audio can be expanded or even overflow into like these other forms.
Akanksha: You also mentioned on your website that ArtWave Studio meant to challenge the world of sound art. How does sound art differ from music or how would you describe that difference in your own words? And what do you seek to bring to sound that in order to as you put it, challenge it?
Sze Min: Sound is not tangible. Sound art I feel usually has something that’s tangible, that can be seen, and you experience it on the spot. It also be recorded sound that people term sound art. I’m very interested in the everyday objects and how to turn that sound do something that’s meaningful and so for example with cups. [Sze Min brings out a few paper cups] I think of them as instruments. And how can I use these to actually enable people who are interested in performing to also perform.
Being trained as a composer, I’ve always written in a very coded language, which is the musical note and you need to know how to read music before you can even play what I was trying to communicate so I’m wondering how else can I allow someone to perform a musical piece, even if they don’t have any musical background.
So if I think of myself as giving instructions, I could give instructions in English, in graphics. I made this work called “Capped White Cones” and it’s a graphical score. So you actually have the different positions of cups. So the instruments are three cups and you read a poem as you manoeuver the cups as you shift them.
The score is made of images, actually drawings. And as you as you read the poem, they’ll be a image that tells you where to position the cups at that point. It’s not it’s not so musical in the sense that nobody is singing, nobody’s actually playing music.
Akanksha: But you’re making music in the process.
Sze Min: In the shifting of a cups there are still all these sounds. I explore cups as an instrument: with three cups, I could either stack them up, I could shift them just to suit the image of the poem. Also, you being part of the process, as you read as you perform, because it can be so easily picked up, so you don’t have to go through a rigorous training.
I’ve also done on the spot poetry singing. If you brought me a poem I will turn it into a song on the spot and you get to participate in the process with me, make decisions with me as I, as we songwrite together.
So that process becomes demystified in a way. Although I have to say that not everybody songwrites the way that I do and but it’s just one of the ways you can approach songwriting.[Sze Min plays the song again before being interrupted by a horn.]
The process happens when I write songs except that I don’t extend it to somebody else, I don’t have an audience when I compose. That’s usually how it is, you don’t have an audience.
Akanksha: Is it more fun when you ask someone to give their words to you or is it more of a challenge?
Sze Min: It is a challenge because I have to open up, and communicate to someone else that I didn’t like what I just composed. And also invite you into something that’s really private.
Akanksha: Into your process.
Sze Min: I really enjoy it when people bring a poem that they like or that they’ve written – it’s something that’s very personal to you. So thank you for opening up your poem to me.[Sze Min begins singing again, fiddling with chords.]
Sze Min: Other things I’ve done… [She rummages through her props]
Akanksha: She’s bringing out a toothbrush and a piece of paper.
Sze Min: On this piece of paper, there are zigzag lines and that’s the direction of which the toothbrush has to move. I’ve done it in a way that it tells you, it still tells you the musical elements, like the parameters. So for example, the speed. Once you turn to a corner, you actually have to pause a bit. Then you go down to the next line. With that pause I’m kind of also marking a rhythm. There’s also a start and end so once you get to the end of it, you actually have to reverse.
There’s another one where there’s a piece of card with a circle in the middle, which I shade with pencil, and you have to scrub it. So you make really quick movements or fast rhythms, really intense. That’s how I notate for non-musicians to play. This was part of a theatre piece where we wanted participation.
There’s another work called “Paper Orchestra” with different types of paper objects and I become the conductor. The instructions are given in English. This is my instrument, and this is your instrument…
Akanksha: She’s bringing out some tracing paper.
Sze Min: There are three different instruments to this piece. So you might receive one of them and it’s meant for a conference. It was a challenge posed to me to create a work for an audience of people – a conference of people, and so I pitched it as a conference icebreaker. It’s meant for large groups of people. So there is tracing paper, there’s your conference booklet and there’s also an origami ball. All these are happening simultaneously. With the tracing paper, I have instructions like, poke the paper with a pencil. Also crushing it and letting it crackle open slowly. [She demonstrates.]
So for the conference booklet. We have instructions like flipping, and tearing a page, and also from the torn page, you whisper loudly the words that are on the page. [She demonstrates.]
I’ve looked at these objects and sort them out in frequencies and decided what kind of rhythm goes where and say, at the point where the page tears, no other instrument is actually making sound. I still look at it from a compositional point of view, but it’s learning how to play with the objects that I have and also understanding the sounds that they make and understanding the instruments and knowing the colours so I can use them in the piece. So I’m applying the same concepts across.
Akanksha: Where do you get these ideas from, just listening to everyday objects?
Sze Min: That’s a very good question. While I was studying in Melbourne, I lived in a very small room and I was surrounded by things and because people were moving out all the time, they always had things that they wanted to discard. So I took a stack of a for envelopes from my friend because she wanted to throw them away, but I was like “These can still be used, although I don’t know when.” So I took them home. There was another day where I found my school library actually throwing out magazines from 1979. And so that was where I got the book that we have here. I picked a few that I thought were interesting. I wasn’t actually going to read them. They were the same quality and material. After getting all these things for a while, I was trying to look for something to do to complete my school project. That was when I decided that okay, I have all these paper materials. Can I do anything about it?
Oh – which reminds me the tracing paper was actually given to me by my friend who bought a new bag and it was stuffed with all the tracing paper. They were usually in good condition and just needed smoothening out. After I collected all these materials I decided they were materials for a new work.
I’m usually inspired by books as well. I had this book called “Lost in Translation”, it contains untranslatable words from around the world. There were a lot of words that related to love even if they didn’t explicitly say that this is about love. It was words like – having butterflies in the stomach, or the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees. I felt all these were speaking of some form of love. I picked six of them, and the work, “Six States of Love”, enables you to experience six different states of love in four minutes.
It’s a headphone work. I would be seated opposite you. You’ll be invited into into this room, and it’s going to be dark, there’s a lamp over the table and I do not speak at all, but I’d be facilitating a whole process, putting objects in front of you, flipping cards for you to read different words and I brought this to different festivals and I always enjoy how other people bring themselves to the work. So people have different associations to all these words; people have told me how komorebi reminds them of walking with their spouse in in Japan. Some people have also said that they felt someone was embracing them. So it’s always been very nice to see how the same piece of work can affect or conjure different memories and experiences based on who you are.
So I can’t say that it’s sound art because it’s also quite a mix of things like the sound cannot just exist alone. It has to be accompanied by all these things, still driven by sound, the storytelling. And I presented it at a theatre festival. So it’s kind of hard to pinpoint.
Akanksha: It’s like is it a performance or is it…?
Sze Min: Because the sound brings you to different locations. You could be in a café, so sound brings you there, but I would still have to be present, and I think the human element also.
Akanksha: A sense of something intimate.
Sze Min: Once we’re in the cafe I become somebody who sits opposite you, but there are also times where I completely shut myself off from you. So this I think this intimacy enables you to experience so many different states.
Akanksha: So you mentioned earlier about how it’s different when you are composing or writing your own music by yourself versus when you do it with someone else. What are some of the differences between these two ways of working?
Sze Min: When I create my own work, I cover all the production. I pitch it to people, I create it, I have to decide where it goes. I need to have the vision for it. But if I were to work with somebody else then I usually am just doing sound design. It’s not entirely passive but less involved in the entire process. I’ve also worked on projects where I’m not really involved in the process…
Akanksha: They just want to just want some music from you.
Sze Min: I’m ok with working that way but I also felt and understand that not everybody understands collaboration. I think especially when we work with clients, they only want this product and they don’t really need that process with you. I actually enjoy all the types of projects that have just described.
I think creating your own project can also be tiring because you’re covering everything, not just the creative aspect of things.
Ever since I returned to Singapore I haven’t really made my own stuff; usually it’s in collaboration.
Akanksha: What are some artists or musicians that you’re particularly inspired by?
Sze Min: I usually listen to very little music.
I’m very inspired by books, by theatre, or by science. Especially children’s nonfiction, how it is presented – children’s nonfiction books. Nothing is being subtracted from the content yet it’s very easy to read and it’s always supplemented by illustrations and it makes me very happy when I read them. If I were to research on a subject, I usually turn to children’s nonfiction first. There’s just so much creativity going on in there. I also find inspiration from the things in my house or everyday things – even when I was traveling here I heard the rhythms of the escalator and different escalators have different rhythms and I know which rhythm, which escalator I want to record for any particular rhythm. I start to log in all these sounds in my brain. Sometimes I would just purposely take that particular route just because I want log that in again.
Akanksha: Intriguing insight into your process and your creative brain. So what are you working on currently? And what’s what are you looking forward to in the future the near future?
Sze Min: Ever since relocating to Singapore. I find I had to change a bit of my strategy. I can’t just do art. I’ve been looking into how other people like say, businesses or social enterprises may need my services. So I’ve been speaking to a couple of social enterprises to see how audio stories can serve them.
So I’ve been thinking about how people in communities that we seldom see can now be heard because of audio, so I’m thinking about how to craft these stories and make them available because when it comes to photography or any visuals of these underserved communities, it’s very sensitive, we usually get opinions of how people feel about them rather than their own personal stories. I thought audio can be this medium and I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to explore.
Akanksha: What are some of the communities that you’re looking at?
Sze Min: Migrant workers. The visually challenged, and adults with disabilities.
Akanksha: When can we next see your work at a festival, any plans?
Sze Min: I’m being commissioned by my university in Melbourne. They are launching a new building on my campus and they’ve commissioned alumni artist to create a work.
Akanksha: So if anyone out there is going to be visiting Australia this year, keep a lookout for it.
Thank you for being on ArtsEquator’s podcast!
Sze Min: Thank you for having me do on-the-spot poetry singing.
Akanksha: It was an excerpt from the longer poem, but I think you captured what I was trying to say.
[Sze Min plays the song in its entirety.]