Every day at noon, Darren Ng awakes in “the quiet West” and begins making music. Afternoons find him venturing out for production meetings or field recordings, and his evenings often host theatre rehearsals. By midnight, he returns home and resumes recording, composing, and designing sounds. Around 6 or 7 a.m., he calls it a night – or a day.
Presumably, as he turns off the lights and heads to bed, sunlight is already streaming in. This is his long night’s journey, back into day.
As an established music composer and sound artist, Ng’s schedule has been such for the past 12 years. During the peak period for sound (which is now), his days are especially unvarying. Currently, he is working on seven theatre productions, three collaborative pieces, two commercial projects, one installation, a new album, and, at some point, this SOUNDSCAPING mix, which includes the specially created “Húsið” (Icelandic for home/house).
It’s the “life of a freelancer,” deadpans Ng, a Philosophy and Theatre Studies graduate from the National University of Singapore.
Apart from his schedule, variation through repetition also finds a place in Ng's four-pronged art. His minimalist designs for the stage, as an associate sound artist for The Finger Players, compositions for film, most notably in Sandcastle (2010) and 23:59 (2011), sound installations and recordings under the alias “sonicbrat” often employ direct, recurring and quietly affecting phrases.
Such ostinatos of his are often conducted on the piano. It subtly invites you to consider the repeated musical phrases an introduction towards a grander, more epic scheme. But in Italian, “ostinato” literally means obstinate, and as a commentator has noted of Ng's composition for the play Turn By Turn We Turn (2011), the piece simply “builds and builds and builds.”
His work in theatre is what Ng is most consistently recognised for. The Flying Inkpot has deemed his work an “unearthly”, additional “character” on the stage. He has been nominated 12 times for the Best Sound Designer award at the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards, won thrice, and in 2005, received an honourable mention for special achievement in sound. This year, he has been nominated twice in the same category. In a sense, what with the talent crunch in theatre, Ng is the sound equivalent of Mac Chan.
But it is Ng’s work as sonicbrat that bears closer listening. Abroad, he has been invited to Barcelona’s Sonar Festival, represented Singapore at the 2008 Red Bull Music Academy, and been reviewed by The Guardian and The Wire. The latter’s critic, Ken Hollings, wrote of sonicbrat’s debut HI.A.TUS (2007), "[it] transforms the pauses of the day into a series of translucent dreams.”
Indeed, the music of sonicbrat is an Instagram-ic portrait of time. His sepia-toned sounds, like those on his most fully realised release, silent audiographies (2009), are intensely personal – more so in their wordlessness. As opposed to his other work, Ng calls his sonicbrat output “more innate expressions, much like a diary.”
Surprisingly, some of these meditatively moving creatures are created almost instantaneously, and – rather like Instagram – are immediately broadcast widely. Wenchuan (2008), his benefit album for the Sichuan earthquake, was created within a day and, like most of his other albums, is available for free download with an optional donation.
When asked why he releases nearly all of his work for nothing, Ng says, “I always think my music is not good enough. And I know it's true.”
Admittedly, at its weakest, it recalls the painfully maudlin, wistful bits of Chinese pop. But at its best, these minimalist paeans slouch towards transcendence: they circle, crawl and coil back into themselves, glistening in sheer purity. Chiefly these moments occur when Ng experiments with far-out concepts (the karmic- and nature-themed hana, 2011), length (the 24- and 31-minute improvisations of in and out of time, 2010), and electronic instrumentation (2007-2008’s weaving).
Recently, Ng has found himself revisiting the piano, in which he is classically trained, and which anchors his music. This summer – whenever that is – he releases stranger to my room on Kitchen. Label (also the house of the dreamily excellent Aspidistrafly). It will be an album about “my living within a space alone,” Ng says, “the familiarity and alienation of a stimuli … the narratives on aging walls, the architectural whispers.”
That space of his would be Bukit Batok Central, where he has lived in a condominium for the last eight years. Within is a fully kitted home studio and an acoustic piano in the living room – Ng uses the entire house for recording (even the toilet). Until he was 25, Ng lived with his parents in the same neighbourhood, five minutes away. “I seldom leave my home, unless for work,” he says.
sonicbrat’s new album will (finally) be for sale. Ostensibly, his self-effacing comments are due to him seeing his back catalogue “as a process in exploring, learning and developing my art.” But it is not difficult to hear in them a taking to heart of the rather deafening silence, at least locally, that has met his hushed work.
Perhaps Bukit Batok Central is as good a place as any other to start listening in.
A brief history, not of house music
One portal into sonicbrat’s “audiographies” is space and place: start with where it was recorded, and go past where it is received.
It begins in the bedroom, as many things do.
Bedroom music, that curious catch-all, broadly refers to music created outside of recording studios and the mainstream record industry. Instead, these sounds are crafted within the private, intimate spaces of the home. Meant to be heard within a parallel setting, bedroom music makes the artist-to-listener ratio a boiled-down 1:1.
In its modern permutation, bedroom music emphasises the loner figure. Outsider artists like Atlas Sound (Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox) and Jandek are thus lumped in this classification, but bedroom music also takes the inside out – the voyeurism of Ólafur Arnalds’ Living Room Songs, for example, the anonymous RxRy and the found sounds of ambient musicians.
Squarepusher, the drum'n'bass multi-instrumentalist and another “home-studio visionary”, told The Wire of his “apartness”: “I was brought up a ‘Thatcher’s child’ – cult of the individual. You follow your own individual path ... It’s quite Victorian in a way, you push yourself until you can’t go any farther.”
The lineage of these mysterious, geeked-out individuals, who keep pushing on at home, can also be traced back to social venues for entertainment. The French composer Erik Satie, of the three “Gymnopédies”, is arguably the forefather of incidental music. Born in the sleepy seaside town of Honfleur, Satie is someone sonicbrat has been compared to, and admires. An eccentric by any definition, Satie moved to Paris in 1887 and soon found himself in the middle of the fin-de-siècle Montmartre cabaret, as Art and the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie (1991) documents.
“Furniture music” (in French, “musique d’ameublement”) is Satie’s prime contribution to music of the domestic sphere. Formulated in 1920, it remains – naturally – shrouded in mystery. According to an eyewitness account, Satie premiered Furniture Music during the intermission of a play and music concert. The programme notes warned the audience “not to pay any more attention to the ritornellos [recurrent musical section] [of Furniture Music] … than to the candelabra, the seats, or the balcony.” But as soon as the intermission and music started, the audience rushed back to their seats. It was a failure.
John Cage – responsible for the post-World War Two revival of interest in Satie – considered the piece “Satie’s most far-reaching discovery, the concept of a music to which one did not have to listen”, as he wrote in Letters to Erik Satie (1978). Nowadays, we call that muzak.
It was Cage’s successors, the avant-gardists of 1970s America, who brought the genre from music hall to concert stage. As John Adams recounted in 2008 to The New Yorker, it was probably also in the 1970s when homemade music acquired a bad name. Adams began experimenting with “‘guerrilla’ electronics” around the same time as composers David Tudor and Cage himself:
On a typical day, I’d spend the morning talking to a class of glazed-eyed graduate students about Beethoven … the afternoon rehearsing the school orchestra in ‘Petrushka’ … and the evening huddled in my office with a soldering iron, my desktop covered with resistors, capacitors, wires, and circuit-board chips.
Adams invented the Studebaker, a synthesiser that came with a crude sampling device. He also staged concerts consisting of a “wailing soprano saxophone”, amped-up vocalists “chanting fragments of Tantric poetry and excerpts from … a book of symbolic logic”.
Thankfully or not, bedroom music moved to the clubs. Now branded “electronica”, artists like Aphex Twin, Coldcut, and Autechre were reacting to the perceived limitations of dance culture. Instead, they drew on varied strands of music like ambient and jazz. As Sean Cooper writes in AllMusic, these artists were often relegated to the back rooms of nightclubs (literally), where stranger things went on.
An encapsulation of the style can be found on Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series. As these artists found their way first to the dance floor, then to arenas, the Warp series also signalled a retreat back home. The first volume of AI (1992), subtitled “Electronic listening music”, had its cover graced by an android, lounging before a hi-fi system at home, joint in hand.
While there was, of course, no funny stuff happening in Singapore, pioneers like Jason Tan of Eastward Audio were already home producing by the pre-digital age of 1981. As Tan told Qilin Music, he, like Adams, began by fashioning his own gear:
The pre-computer era was a very expensive period … the first synth I bought was a Sequential Circuits Pro One. There was no patch memory or sequence memory on board, so every time you power down, everything will be wiped off ... To make a song I would spend hours sequencing just a few 8-bar patterns. Storing the data on cassette tapes and praying a lot ... [Regardless,] the analogue synth era was a great period ... Tapes and cables were also my best friends.
Braver, newer technology like Fruity Loops, Cakewalk, and Garageband, opened up yet another world. By allowing the virtual recreation of analogue equipment at home, such software let musicians record – and later, with the wonders of the World Wide Web – release their noodlings affordably. Tan made the analogue-to-digital switch, while sonicbrat fused electro with acoustic. Meanwhile, a fresh generation of producers like Muon and elintseeker emerged, byte by byte.
More importantly, the Web opened ears. It seems almost quaint now to recollect the days when local DJs guarded their vinyl collection jealously, going to the extent of snapping up all the copies at HMV, and even scrawling out the artist information with marker pens.
Ng himself sees “two sides to progress.” “We have to draw the line between accessibility and capability ... Having the accessibility doesn't equate to capability. There can be more bedroom musicians, but not necessarily better musicians.”
And what of the human, flesh and blood spark? “[T]he Internet was one of the main ways that so many people found out about dubstep so quickly,” producer Skream recounted to The Quietus. “[But] there wouldn’t have been a click almost, without that shop [Croydon’s Big Apple] – you kind of needed that family vibe to do it.” Even Satie, the celibate recluse, was in his earlier days a relentless collaborator with Cocteau, Debussy and the ‘Les Six’ collective.
sonicbrat, the moniker, was also born offline and outside, during a “silly episode.” Around 2002, Ng was headed for his first solo sound art performance and needed a name. He found himself at the now demolished kopitiam by the Substation and the old National Library, and “over a chitchat,” christened himself.
That kind of room for randomness, and maybe even some rebellion, feels like it’s closing in. As artist Debbie Ding commented on documentations, “‘meeting spots’ have gotten fewer and fewer ... These days I don't know where to go.”
Inventing the bedroom
So, in a country with the third highest population density (Population Reference Bureau, 2011), we return to our bedrooms. Bedrooms themselves were never a given. They were luxuries in shophouses and kampongs, in the same way they were in the Victorian era – apparently in 1839, the average house in the UK had 10 people living in it, with boys and girls sharing rooms. And rooms with a view came with a tax.
With money, bedrooms changed. With more money, bedrooms are changing. As anyone who has spotted an acquired then abandoned HDB flat at Holland Village, Tanjong Pagar, Queenstown or Rochor Centre can attest, it is slightly unsettling to know that a home’s 99-year lease can be prematurely converted into a death certificate too.
“I have fond memories of my younger days,” Ng says of Bukit Batok, “of the already overdeveloped park, the basketball court I played at that no longer exists, and my walks to Street 11 for piano lessons that I used to hate but grew to love.”
What, then, is there to be said about music that is born out of being alone in nowhere important, if even those places start ticking down the moment they are launched? Like a Metabolist dream, sonicbrat’s decayed notes, perhaps, offer an answer in kind.
Bedroom communities are also known as commuter towns. Nobody does anything but sleep in these Lands of Nod – work is a transit ride away, the bright lights of the city can’t even be seen to beckon. The heartlands, they are also called.
Xhin, the Singaporean producer who is signed to the Berlin-based Stroboscopic Artefacts, was asked in a neontapedeck interview of his homeland. There’s nothing “special about being home or separating myself from the others,” he said, “it’s not really necessary to be in places where all things music are happening … it is always good to get away from the present hype for a while”.
Ah Leong, the protagonist of Philip Jeyaretnam’s First Loves (1987), offers another imagining. With his Singapore having “been flattened for land reclamation, the hills dumped in the sea”, Ah Leong is given the space to create “vertical” and “horizontal communities”. Surveying the evening scene by his window, Ah Leong, Jeyaretnam writes:
felt a special affinity for all those who dwelt on the tenth floor. They ought to form a community, bound together by their horizontal ties … But how could this be so when no one else recognised this shared experience? … Everywhere one walked one heard the same noises: babies, onions frying in oil, quarrelling
As I was typing this to sonicbrat, my mother entered the room and asked: “What is this music?”
“Ambient,” I said as a shorthand. “You hear the crickets chirping, the birds making noise.”
She looked blankly at me, as if to ask if that was to be considered music.
“The stuff around us that no one hears,” I tried again, paraphrasing Margaret Leng Tan in Singapore Gaga (2005). “Orh,” she replied, “Nice.”
She left. I looked out of the window – single yet interconnected in the computer's warm glow, in privacy yet pigeonholed – and imagined another bedroom.
Download SOUNDSCAPING: The Bedroom / "Húsið" mix above. By kind permission of sonicbrat.
Portraits as Archaeology, a work in progress, locates a spectrum of Singaporeans upon their natural environments and artifacts. By projecting formal portraits onto defining spaces of his subjects, photographer Tan Ngiap Heng aims to change the traditional relationship of sitter and space in environmental portraiture. To decipher, one digs, and discovers.
SOUNDSCAPING is cross-published with Midnight Shift, the electronic music events and label uprising.
Words Dan Koh
Main Image Tan Ngiap Heng
Other Images Yuan Zhiying
Special thanks to Debbie Chia, Kavan Spruyt and Justin Ong.