Interviewer: Saizo Sugawa
My starting point was Tony Conrad
--Siew Wai, I've heard that you have also been active as a curator and video artist. Can you first talk about your activities in those areas?
I started out as a video artist. I went to the United States to study in 1998, and entered the video program at the Department of Media Study at the State University of New York's University at Buffalo in '99, which is how it started.
At first, I knew nothing about the so-called experimental cinema. I was only thinking about movies and I was going to become a film director. But then, I took a video class and met Tony Conrad (an experimental filmmaker known for works such as "The Flicker"), who was teaching there. I'd never seen anybody like him and it was a great shock to me.
Getting an education in Asia is mostly about listening to your teachers and doing as they say, and they don't teach you much about self-expression or interactivity. That's why this entire class was completely different from anything I had ever experienced, and I was very inspired by Mr. Tony Conrad as a person. With regard to video and film, it was a great inspiration for me to learn that it was possible to use them in such a different way. When the class started, the seats were filled because it was the famous Tony Conrad, but in the end, only five people remained (laughs). I was one of those five people.
My music also started from visual images. I wanted to make original music to go with the original videos and I started experimenting with sounds, and that is how my music started. At first I was singing short melodies but that developed into making music for the sake of music itself.
In the beginning, I used various things to make sounds, and I processed my voice with sound effects. But for the last few years, I wanted to pursue the body more and I now use the voice without any processing.
In addition to making videos, I've been organizing events since I was a student. I just like to start things. When I was in graduate school, during the holidays when I returned from the US to Malaysia, I contacted my university professors and showed my videos at three locations.
And then I started the so-called organizing. Before I went to study in the US, I didn't know what "exposure" meant and I didn't even know any words that meant exposure. But after spending several years in the United States, I came back to Malaysia and became friends with musicians who were doing experimental things or improvisations and people who were making films as individuals, and we got together to start a small artists' collective called SiCKL. And we had a small studio where we showed videos every month and we performed improvisational music there, too. Sometimes we would do it by ourselves and sometimes we would be approached by someone from the outside and work with them in the studio. Sometimes, international filmmakers and artists would see our website or blog and contact us from abroad. I organized events for such people at the studio.
" Possibilities of the voice and body
--So what did you think about the concerts you had in Tokyo and Kyoto?
Of course it was a lot of fun! In Kuala Lumpur, there aren't that many musicians so even though I try to have performances with different people and in different combinations, it ends up being the same people playing together.
--Was it the first time for you to have a session with so many musicians?
I've performed with seven or eight people at the most, so it was the first time. And I've had sessions with people who play different instruments but I'd never been in a concert that was this long. Before this, I've had sets of 10 or 20 minutes, or 30 minutes at the most. So it was the first time to play with an orchestra like this for as long as 60 minutes.
--Which musicians did you find interesting to work with?
Mr. Otomo! At the concert in Kyoto, Mr. Otomo was next to me the entire time, so I could see everything he was doing up close, which was really interesting for me. It's probably because he has a lot of experience, but he plays sharply and accurately without any hesitation. I sometimes start thinking about what to do next while I am playing, but I don't think Mr. Otomo does. It was also very interesting to work with dj sniff from Singapore, especially because it was the first time I performed with someone who works the turntables. In Malaysia, I often perform with a tenor saxophone player, so it was also very interesting for me to work with Ryoko Ono, who is also a sax player.
--Please tell me about the concept behind your voice performances.
Unlike Tony, I don't have a concept (laughs). I express what I feel in the moment. When I play with other people, I communicate with them as I perform. So having no concept is my concept. The voice is interesting in that it has a lot of possibilities. You probably only use it in certain ways in daily life, but I want to explore the potential of a person's voice. It's not just singing. You could also use your voice like percussion instruments. And your voice changes as you move your body. For example, as you move your face, your voice starts to change. I would like to further explore such approaches as well. I've always been interested in what we can do with our bodies and I've tried various things. In the past, I've tried to dance as well, but I wasn't a very good dancer, so I decided to work with my voice, which was my strongpoint.
Of course there are different ways of using the body that I don't know about so if I could find information about the various ways, I could maybe learn about different things. One way is meditation. I am interested in the various aspects of meditation, like how a certain kind of voice affects your body when you are meditating, or how sometimes you feel like you're meditating even when your performing on stage. When I went to a deep listening workshop by Pauline Oliveros (an composer and accordionist who places emphasis on sonic awareness) in the US, I learned about listening to yourself more introspectively and experiencing something similar to meditation, so that also had an effect on me as well.