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AT 37, Song-Ming Ang has created an eclectic, multi-dimensional body of work that centres on sound and music. His study of it extends beyond rule-based music compositions to include accidental music, noise experiments, lost songs and the historical relationship between music and society.
In 2007, for instance, he started a series of listening parties called Guilty Pleasures in which members of the public are invited to bring a CD of songs they secretly love but which their friends and family hate. For another 2011 artwork, he placed a karaoke system on a travelling lorry and asked heartland aunties and uncles across the island to spontaneously sing their favourite numbers out loud.
Last week, the National Arts Council named Song-Ming Ang as the 2019 Singapore representative for the biggest art showcase in the world, the Venice Biennale. The event is the visual arts world equivalent of the Olympics, with more than 85 countries taking their best talents to Italy's famous floating city.
His 2019 Venice Biennale show titled Music For Everyone: Variations on a Theme continues his egalitarian approach towards art-making. Curated by Michelle Ho, the show's range of artworks includes one involving him inviting members of the public to send him handwritten letters telling him about their lives. He will then respond to each letter by tailoring for the writer a "mixtape" of songs that could range from classical to pop.
Another artwork will look at the history, role and use of the humble recorder in Singapore's music education since the 1970s. Ang lives in Berlin with his German wife and their one-year-old daughter.
Why the obsession with sound?
It's what moves me the most. I derive a lot of joy out of it. I can lose myself in it, which is a nice feeling. On the flip side though, I'm very sensitive to it. I have a one-year-old daughter whom I take good care of, feeding her, putting her to bed, changing her diapers. I'm a real hands-on Dad and I don't mind the lack of sleep. But it's really difficult for me when she's crying in my ear. I have to put ear plugs in or I can't handle her.
Random sounds and noises are sometimes central to your work. What's the appeal?
To stay creative, an artist has to look at everything that is out there. Whether it's purposefully created and organised, which results in what we call music, or incidental, which results in what we call noise. Whether you're looking at it as music, noise, sound or silence, they're meaningful only because you impose meaning on them. So I make a choice of how I want to relate to them.
How is that noise transposed into art? At what point is it still noise, at what point does it become art?
Great question. When I first started making contemporary art many years ago, I was simultaneously making music with a band and on my laptop. But what I thought then to be worthwhile, meaningful and experimental turned out to be a reproduction of obscure sub-genres that already existed, such as "noise music". So I ditched the idea of creating experimental music in that context. So I got out of my comfort zone and created Guilty Pleasures, which invited people to a listening party of songs they felt guilty about loving. It was not a concert or performance, and it looked at the contexts in which music is experienced, the almost anthropological perspectives of music. And what I found was that the contemporary art world is very accepting of various kinds of media, experiences and subject matters; and open to making connections with different ideas to produce interesting results.
While trawling through the National Archives, you found a series of lost posters promoting a series of concerts called Music For Everyone, organised in the 1970s and 1980s by Singapore's then Ministry of Culture. That's become your Biennale show's title. Is there a lot of lost music and music history in Singapore?
There must be. There's this label called Sublime Frequencies, and what they do is that they go around the world and dig for music that's gone out of copyright. Lots of music have been created around the world. There used to be these small record labels putting out music but they've since gone out of business and the copyrights are lost. Sublime Frequencies found many Singapore pop songs from the 1960s and put it out as a record. But I imagine there's a lot more lost Singapore music out there.
Your Biennale presentation is centred on Singapore music and its history. How do you define Singapore music, considering we're a sort of melting pot or salad bowl of cultures, with many external influences?
It's not something that can be pinned down and answered in one sentence. It's like trying to answer the question "what is music?", and then answer the question "what is Singapore?" So when you ask "what is Singapore music?", it's an infinitely difficult question to the power of two. Some people would be quick to point to ethnic or folk music, or what we might call "originary" music related to Singapore before it was founded by Raffles. At the same time, there's this incredibly modern part of Singapore that's also modern and eclectic and part of us. One of my works for the Biennale looks at the recorder, a European instrument originating from the Middle Ages, and how it's shaped musical education in Singapore. Is that a Singapore instrument? One thing that might help us with the definition is not just to think about how we define things but the perspectives we adopt when we look at things. In other words, we have to be open and accept there are competing definitions.
You're inviting the public to write to you, and in return you'll create "mixtapes" for them in response to their lives or at least their letters. That sounds like a lot of "mixtapes"!
Yes, I don't know how many people will write to me. There'll be a window period, of course, but I could get 100 or 1,000 - who knows? But I promise to read all the letters and respond to them. You see, one of the approaches of my art is to let you, the audience member, get out of my art what you put into it. So, for instance, in Guilty Pleasures, you could be a bystander or you could be a participant by bringing your CD. Similarly for this work, if you make the effort to write me something, I will make the effort to create you a mixtape. I want the exchange between artist and audience to be meaningful and two-sided.