Are You One of Them? – Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Tham

Are You One of Them? – Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme

Whoever stepped into the basement gallery of the National Museum of Singapore between 8 October and 8 November 2020 was welcomed by a customary exhibition introduction board, which I have taken the liberty to quote at length below:

First presented in 2019 in Venice, Italy, Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme, the solo exhibition of artist Song-Ming Ang, was held at the Singapore Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious international contemporary art platforms.
Ang’s practice explores the ways people relate to music on a personal and societal level. In his work, music is used to investigate other issues, such as how public participation leads to productive modes of self-organisation, and how conditions of amateurism may generate unusual forms of knowledge. He is also interested in creating environments in which self-imposed limitations can result in the unexpected.

Such boards serve the purpose of contextualisation, as well as being a preamble to an exhibition. For this particular homecoming show, it was there for the benefit of the curious but less clued-in populace or perhaps more likely, it was the COVID-19 induced domestic-tourist-minded visitors, which made up the majority of the visitors to the exhibition. To use music as a foregrounded conceptual building block for art is not a typical proposition in Singapore: especially since the age of digitalisation and virtualisation, music is often treated as background balm or entertainment and occasions for social mingling at best.

Ang’s conception of the work came about from his lifelong love and involvement in first being a fan, then a musician and subsequently an artist using music as a theme or medium. He was a member of experimental rock band, Hearing Hill, in his younger days before becoming a solo electronic-based act trading under the name of Circadian in the mid-2000s. His works are the perfect example of a multi-modal and disciplinary approach, which blur the line between music-making/ composing, installation work, sound art and even video art (for example, “Album” (2015), “No Man’s Band” (2007-2010) and “Dusk To Dawn Choruses” (2017- ), which he had also incorporated into this show). In many ways the show could be seen as a culmination for what he has done up to this point, but also a scorecard of sorts for his singular vision in his art.

Contemporary artists like Ang are seen today as conceptualists with an almost flâneur-like preoccupation of observing the world around them and refracting back to the public via their works. The exhibition layout took on a vaguely progressive transit from the political at the start to the personal at the end, and temporally, the past to the present in a local context.

Ang’s show could be perceived as gently evocative; one could have taken it at face value and enjoyed the historical nostalgia, the minimalist and innocent joy of music making, appreciation and meaning-making as well as the re-purposing of musical paraphernalia, with some video art of participatory music-making thrown in. Innocuous by turns, I can imagine it being perfect for the Singaporean weekend family outing during this enforced non-travelling period. However, the exploration of some pertinent aesthetic and societal issues in the show would hopefully provide the visitors food for thought. This is neither a comprehensive post-show review nor a critique of the works; instead, an extension of the interrogation of the issues Ang weaved into his show.

In Search of the Singapore Song and Music For Everyone

Image Courtesy of Joseph Tham

The various display boards for the first segment, under the thematic title of “In Search of the Singapore Song”, provided a contrasting reality.  On the one hand, there was the top-down state-sanctioned set of policy to build the newly established island republic’s fledgling national identity in the 1970s; on the other was a purposeful, determined and absolute curtailing by the state of the grounds-up rock and pop scenes, also known as part of the “yellow culture” of the same period. There is an almost Manichean slant to the selective endorsement by the state then to curate and promote the right kind of people’s vernacular art based more on the seemingly innocuous notions of ‘folk’ songs, traditional and establishment acceptable musical forms like the Chinese Orchestra and western Guitar Ensemble. The spread of fabric posters reproduced and entitled “Music for Everyone” illustrated the effort of the various cultural events held then. In many ways, the state sought to prescribe, pick and choose the “right” kind of people’s arts is to be actively encouraged and sanctioned while rejecting and persecuting others which were deemed as immoral and unsuitable.

Back on the soils of our ex-colonial masters, the British Isle, there was a parallel of albeit ground-up activism of left-wing minded intellectuals, ethnomusicologists and musicians who brought back into the consciousness of the Brits  the 1950s-1970s English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk musics by A. L, Lloyd, Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and many more of their associates. This Folk movement could claim to be a more authentic attempt at promoting people’s art by the people, from the people and for the people as they sang the sea shanties, work songs, jigs, Morris dance tunes, ballads and in particular, protest songs which reflected the working and lower middle classes of the British society. This enterprise was inspired by Leftist thinking (as opposed to the Right wing reclamation of the past for jingoistic intentions) to prevent the erasure of the cultural forms of those sectors of society which had been often ignored and discriminated against.

The notion of people’s art in Singapore presented a different approach as a result of the country’s political setup: a newly independent nation with little or no resources, and the lack of a unifying cultural and historical-national narrative shared by the diverse communities aside from the colonial experiences. This vulnerable state had been further aggravated by the British exit militarily and economically.

Recorder Sculptures

Strolling past the last few fabric posters, one’s attention would have been easily distracted by a wall of glass-enclosed exhibits of sculptural formation of recorders. Placed in niftily designed rectangular cases, the series named “Recorder Sculptures” (2019) has more than a touch of museum shop souvenir/ gift to them. Displayed with the cases, the various re-repurposed recorders highlighted the malleability of the instrument due to their disassemble-able nature. Connecting back to Ang’s idea of the recorder being the formative musical experience of a Singaporean student in their school music lessons, the instrument was cheap and relatively easy to learn. Students also loved to leverage on the easily pull-apart nature of it to “shape” them into formations/ forms similar to those seen within the cases. A tad of nostalgia and a whiff of childhood innocence was evoked for many local visitors, I believe. This is akin to what cultural critic Simon Reynolds alludes to in his book Retromania on museums being the sites of experience economy and in this case, nostalgia sells.

Image Courtesy of Joseph Tham

Music Manuscripts

Next up, visitors would enter a rectangular exhibition sub-space, and be presented with a plethora of multimodal displays from video installations, glass-bounded standing top view showcases, wall-mount framed works and listening stations strategically placed in the end alcove with seating furniture. Two series of works stood out for me here. The  first was “Music Manuscripts” (2013 – ), the re-purposed scores as art & craft products which Ang perforated, cut up, stitched, glued atop and re-configured as three dimensional pieces divorced from the original functions of score sheets — the faithful and precise documentation of the compositional notations of musical works. Serving as an extension of pioneers like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp to challenge the conceptual notions of the meaning of music and noise, artwork and readymade, Ang had a field day creating these pieces, which I guess, was to challenge the definition of a score paper and its use. I can imagine a mixture of whimsical fun and conceptual seriousness, all in good measure. Pretty to look at, but for those who wished to ask deeper questions, a great vista to ponder upon about meaning and means, sense and sensibility.

Image Courtesy of Joseph Tham

Songs for… (a letter)

Image Courtesy of Joseph Tham

The second series, presented as a number of listening stations, seems nominally typical in contemporary art shows for at least two decades or more with sound related art gaining traction and a permanent slot in the museum white cube. On closer look at the playlist of these stations, there was an almost consistency to its curatorial preference and taste involved. Below are two selections, from the various “Songs for…”:

Songs for L
“Ever Since” by Dirty Three
“Flicker” by Marc Ribot
“A Year In A Minute” by Fennesz
“French Catalogues” by Brian Eno
“Replica” by Oneohtrix Point Never
“Goes By” by Emeralds
“Then It’s White” by The Field

Songs for C
“Story Of The Whole Thing” by Out Hud
“Paper” by Talking Heads
“Sea Above, Sky Below” by Dirty Three
“Never Light” by Thurston Moore
“Rollercoaster” by Kimya Dawson
“Fanfares Forward” by Philip Jeck
“Sympathy For the Strawberries” by Sonic Youth
“A valentine out of season (1944)” by John Cage
“Talisman” by Air

In many ways in some circles, the above are exemplars of good musical taste, ranging from the hypnagogic pop of Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds, the New York punk, postpunk and post-postpunk of Talking Heads, Sonic Youth and Out Hud to the Classical music iconoclast, John Cage. A case of good taste and hipsterism even? Then, we contrast them to Ang’s other work on display in the same show a wee bit earlier, “Manifesto For Bad Music” (2011), which visitors could take facsimiles of, on six different coloured papers, purportedly championing bad music as utilitarian, non-judgmental and reclaiming them. It also comes with a crowdsourced playlist to boot, “Bad Music for Everyone”. The seeming juxtaposition was curiously fascinating as there was an apparent flagging of the idea of taste and curation which highlights the question of aesthetics in the arts. On the facsimiles, it is stated that “We openly declare our love for elevator music, pop-classical crossovers, smooth jazz, and mindless pop. Bad music lovers of all countries, unite!” A nudge-nudge wink-wink ironic gesture, or a wagging finger at the supposed self-styled tastemakers who would have approved of the former lists, or maybe, a stand that the former lists are the real deal meant for the visitors to immerse themselves in by putting in their head or earphone jacks?

Ang’s show could have been taken as a model of the experience economy of today which consumers of cultural and heritage products taking up the white cube of the modern museum space which channels directly to the neo-liberal capitalist economic paradigm. Or if we wished, we could have taken a more insidious look at important questions of agency in art curation, sponsorship and creation and the fundamental issue of aesthetical taste and canonisation. Whichever lens one wanted to put on, there would be takeaways for sure.  At the end of the day, it depended on what it was that one wanted out of a day in the museum.

Image Courtesy of Joseph Tham

Joseph Tham is a history educator as well as an independent researcher. His research interests include local and global avantgarde, alternative and underground musics, histories and subcultures. He used to run a record shop, Flux Us, and had organised gigs for local and international experimental and avant-garde artists.