No background in music
- First off, can you tell me about your musical background?
I don't have such thing as a musical background.
- Really (laugh) ?
No really. I studied art. I lived in Taipei till I was 17, then I went to Melbourne to study sound art. I have no training in music or voice performances.
- What did you specifically study in sound art?
I studied in a media art department so I also made video works, but most of what I did was related to sound. More specifically it was voice rather than sound, and I was making works that used voice since my first year. I would use my voice as materials for a composition and of course also improvise with my voice too. During my first year I did make a piece with toys that made sound, but everything else was related to voice.
- When did you start focusing on voice?
It was very intuitive. Since I started performing, I would reflect and find many possibilities in the voice. It's robably because I was living in a foreign country in an environment where I had to speak a different language. The most important aspect in my performance and artwork is their relationship to communication. Therefore, the most direct medium to communicate was the voice.
- Were you performing with your voice before you entered university?
In high school I did take part in a choir but I was not serious about performing with my voice.
- So you didn't go to university to study voice but rather that you discovered afterwards?
- When you started expressing yourself with voice were there other voice performers that you referenced?
The first artist that influenced me when I started performing with my voice during my second year of studies was Spanish composer and performer Fatima Miranda. She is my biggest idol. Miranda studied in India and makes graphic scores or composes with recordings made from her voice.
- Where there other students around you that were working with voice?
Not really. There were others who were making work with sounds that they recorded. Up until my second year I had a cellist and guitarist classmate and we would exchange sounds to use in each other's work.
- Your voice technique is very unique - was this developed on your own?
Yes. However there are aspects in my technique that I developed my through playing with other people. Sometimes I try to imitate their sounds. For example, during my first year I played a lot with a cellist who created very complex sound s through preparation on his instrument and extended techniques. By trying to imitate those sounds I discovered new ways to use my voice.
- Were you never interested in singing normal songs?
I am a very bad singer (laugh)! I can't even whistle. I think I am better at doing strange things.
- I felt that maybe after our experience in Tango, your performance changed a little compared to what I heard before. I thought that maybe the sounds in the mountain, the insects, or what we could hear off the cliff might have fed-back into your performance. In terms of imitating, as you mentioned earlier, did these influence you at all?
Yes of course. However my performances are always changing. The environment, the situation, the context all change what I do when I perform. That is because I am always conscious of the space that I perform in.
- Was there a moment where you imitated the sounds of cicadas?
Did I sound like that (laugh)? Yesterday's concert (September 21, 2017) at Sendai Mediatheque the sound around me was very loud so rather than pitches I was thinking of frequencies and trying to find where my voice can be heard. So maybe it sounded like an insect.
- Did you ever play an instrument?
Never seriously. In elementary school I had to take piano lessons but I only did it because my parents told me to, so I hated it (laugh) .
But if you ask me if I have a background in art, that changes depending on the person asking. For me, media art was an attempt to focus on our experiences as people. I was thinking of how the audience would experience my performances. Being aware of the space and the intimacy felt by the audience in order to guide them to another place is what is fundamental for me in media art, and I consider this practice my background.
- I understand what you are saying. Maybe this is not a good metaphor, but I thought your performances were like a bat. Meaning that you have a very special awareness of the space. Voice performers with a musical background usually stand on stage and try to deliver their voice to the audience from there, but it feels like your are researching characteristics of the space using your voice.
Yes I am very aware of the things you mentioned. Although, I have never thought of myself as a bat (laugh) .
- So are you more interested in performing in places like museums or elementary schools, which this tour has taken you, where the space is not made for sound over venues that are meant for playing music?
I am interested in both. There are ways to perform in both kinds of spaces. Each live venue has their own characteristics, don't they? That is the same as when I perform in relationship to a space in a museum. Yesterday's Sendai mediatheque had no acoustic characteristics that changed depending where I stood, so I didn't have to move around. Everyone was making large sounds, so I focused on techniques using the microphone. Using a microphone and technology to amplify one's voice is also a way to communicate using voice as a medium. When I mediate my voice, what the audience hears is separate from my personal voice. That becomes closer to a "voice" that we can all share. We can think of it as a "voice" that exists between the audience and ourselves.
- When you talk about using the microphone as part of the voice performance, for example, C. Spencer Yeh who is touring with you also produces voice sounds that wouldn't be possible without the microphone. But you use the microphone in a very different way than Spencer.
Spencer uses his voices as one of his sonic materials. He also uses other sources and abstracts them through processing with electronics. My approach is completely different - the process in which I abstract my voice within me is very important. That's why our use of the microphone is also very different although we are both using voice. For me the microphone is the same as the space or a frame and I am interested in the process how I can abstract my voice with in it.
Composition and Workshops
- Although you may not make musical compositions, when you make works of sound art you also select and structure sounds. How much improvisation is involved in these works?
Earlier I said that I have no musical background, but that only means that I never have been trained in traditional musical education. Within many contexts such as contemporary music and experimental music one can say that sound art is music as well. I do have a background in this.
Within that context if we talk about my compositions, I believe there are two sides - compositions recorded and released on CDs and compositions within live performances. Recorded compositions are recorded in one take to try to capture the improvisational moments and the momentum. If we talk about composing for live performances, improvising live is like constantly composing based on the judgments you make at each moment. In that sense there is composition within improvisation. When I improvise with my voice, I am always trying to go against my own patterns like habits or what I am used to doing. So even during a live performance and I think "this is the right voice to make now" I often would not do that on purpose. I feel like surprise is a very important aspect for a performance, so I try to think of how to keep the surprises happening and make a whole piece by putting these together.
- What kind of compositional work do you make?
I make compositions to make music with a group. In these cases I conduct a workshop at the beginning. For example I would collect about 12-20 people who are not performers and have them make sounds with their voice based on a simple structure that I have prepared. We try to find out about our voice among many voices within a particular space. Sometimes we do a simple improvisational game.
- That sounds interesting. Can you tell me more about the workshop you do?
There are several uploaded online, but basically there are two types. One is where I interact with the audience while I perform. The other is that I ask people in the audience for volunteers and they take part.
For example, there is a very simple voice performance that I did in 2005 together with the audience. We first went to a park and I gave a simple instruction to each participant. Each person were given sounds to make like "aaaaaaa" or "ho ho ho ho" and instructed to say it differently. Afterwards, we divided into two teams and each team got on a boat in the lake that was within the park. As we arrive to where there were no other people and were only surrounded by nature, each team stood on the shore opposite from each other. Then we form a pair with someone on the other side of lake and when one makes their sound that was given to them the other in pair would respond with their sound. One doesn't have to respond immediately, and can do it at their own timing. This was a very simple performance but the feedback I received afterwards was very good, and I felt that a super natural space emerged where everyone experienced an unusual non-verbal communication. This was a huge experience for me both as a participant and as an individual.
- For this kind of work do you also think about repeating it in another place? Or can these works only happen at specific locations?
It depends on the idea that led to the work, but in most cases they were inspired by specific locations, so in that sense they would be difficult to repeat somewhere else. For example the piece that I just described to you was in a park that had a very special bird, and I wanted to include the bird's cry as part of the performance. Even if I extracted the same instructions and did it in another place that will likely become another performance. Also because this work only has simple instructions and in actuality the participants are the ones who make it, with different participants inevitably the performance will also change. I suppose even in that case there would be something that feeds back to me.
Self-organized space "Ting Shuo"
- I heard that you run your own space in Tainan and organized concerts and workshops there. Can you tell me what kind of space it is?
It's called "Ting Shuo" (http://tingshuostudio.org) which I run together with Nigel Brown who is an Australian experimental musician and also my husband. It is in Tainan in Taiwan, and we only started to do performances since last August, so it is still new for us. Experimental music itself is still new and exotic in Tainan. We are trying to have our space as a community space or a place for education. Also in organizing the space we have two basic rules. One is to have it accessible. We want it to be a friendly and an open space for anyone. Second is to provide space to people who come. By actively engaging in conversations, we want people who come for the first time to feel like they are part of a community here.
- How big is the space.
It is very small. In japan about 24 tatami mats (six square meters). The building is about 50 years old and we have the event space on the ground floor and living space on top. We sometimes serve a meal before our concerts. Usually we get an average of about 20 people to our concerts but for workshops we limit the participants to 10 people. What we emphasize equally at both concerts and other events is to converse with the people that come. Today you are interviewing me, but in Taiwan there are hardly any texts on experimental music, so it is very important to have direct conversations about this. Another thing we try to insist on is for the performing artists to challenge themselves. We think that the artists should not only play something to the audience but learn something from the audience. Since our space is small we want the artists that are invited to try out something new or something experimental rather than showing off their best performance. I want this space to help one find a new approach to their practice. I think it's important for both the artists and audience that the experience leads to something.
- Are the people who perform mostly from Tainan? Do you invite people from abroad?
We are very small space with little money so we do not pay for air fair for artists to come, but some musicians will find their own funding and play at our space. They will receive a grant to tour Asia, and Ting Shuo would be one of the stops. Actually we get a lot of requests from artists abroad but since we are small we only do one concert per month. When there is someone coming from abroad we always book a local musician. It becomes a precious experience.
- I think your activities as both an artists and organizer will be become more significant in future. What did you think of the AMF tour?
I have never played so many concerts in such a short period of time, and there are many moments where I have to use my voice in extreme ways, so I was very careful of controlling my energy so that I could performance in the best condition at each concert. Although I organize a space in Tainan, I am also a traveller and I go to many different countries for residencies and performances. Therefore, "meeting" is very important for me, and in that sense the AMF was a very good experience for me.