Day 4 (Nov 7) – the final pieces

Didik, Elizabeth and Rady watching Amin perform.

The artist lineup is complete! Andy is back from Australia and he’s here to give us a belated introduction, i.e. the five-minute practical demonstration and ten-minute verbal introduction that the other six practitioners went through on the first day. The moment he begins to speak it’s clear that he’s in the right room. While he wasn’t privy to the large-scale discussion that took place yesterday, he’s flagged exactly the same issues for discussion.

Andy playing the dizi.
Andy playing the dizi.

Andy first heard the sound of the dizi when he was eight years old, immediately went to hunt it down and eventually joined the school’s Chinese orchestra. But while he loved his instrument, he says he never felt connected to or satisfied with the thematic concerns of Chinese orchestral music, whether it was horseriding or the Cultural Revolution. While pursuing music as a flautist in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), he was also learning how to play the gamelan over at the Lasalle College of the Arts, along with some training in theatre and dance. He also began composing music that dealt with local ideas that resonated with him, the soundscapes of everyday experience. He identifies his own lineage with that of his master’s – the 江南丝竹 style of Chinese instrumental music (jiangnan sizhu; Jiangnan silk and bamboo, where silk stands for stringed instruments and bamboo for wind instruments like the dizi). He appreciates its embracing of improvisation, where it has “a simple, structural score, and people can improvise around it, which gives it its personality through reinterpretation”. He’s also very influenced by the gamelan and often incorporates its scale, ideas and structure into his music.

Like almost all the other practitioners in the room, he lays out his challenges as “the preconceived notions of who I am and what I’m expected to be”. When he first “broke out” of the traditional music framework, he faced “a lot of wrath”, and was told that “the apple has fallen very far from the tree.” In particular, he contests the connotations and impositions of the word “traditional” that seems to lock practitioners like himself in time, in the past – when in fact culture is evolving all the time. It’s part of the reason he founded SA (仨), a collective of musicians that is both inter-disciplinary and multicultural, which has embarked on all sorts of collaborations (including a deeply sensorial and hypnotic audio-visual experience with NADA and Brandon Tay, Anticipation of One, which I attended at the Singapore International Festival of Arts earlier this year).

One of Andy’s biggest concerns is how there’s a lack of a crossover from audience members of the various art forms in Singapore, e.g. the audience for a Beijing opera production is probably going to be very different from a ballet one. So although there’s a substantial audience base, he feels they aren’t being cultivated across forms and disciplines. He proposes developing arts audiences from a much younger age, giving them access to exciting pieces of art when their tastes haven’t quite cemented – because these tastes become more and more fixed as audiences reach the 25-45 age bracket, the prime ticket-buying demographic.

Like the day before, the group has a discussion about what’s been brought up. I’m focusing on the tail end of the conversation, when Shimizu-san asserts that even what we know today as “traditional art” began as artists focusing on their individual practices, then coming together and consolidating over time into a “traditional form”; they were, in fact, experimenting. “Even when you’re practising today, you carry that history on your back,” he says through Sim, “It’s a long, connected story, and maybe we can reconstruct and picture that journey.”

Amin agrees, but he says, “I’m aware of my history, but often policymakers and people who want our services only see us as the past.” (Quote of the DAY.)

Andy echoes this – he brings up how what we know as traditional Chinese orchestral music today was in fact a construct of the 1960s, a response to Western orchestral music, which is what Ee Vian brought up on the very first day. She says: “Maybe some people don’t want to move from that script.”

The rest of the day is spent on putting together their script. The various segments of Journey to Nowhere have all been sketched out, it’s now a matter of stitching the modular pieces together. Andy also gets to see what’s been created in his absence and where he enters the picture. A lot of the development work now involves some freedom to improvise within structured frames (not that dissimilar to the jiangnan sizhu music Andy mentioned earlier), and working on how all seven of the performers sense and listen to each other, like a mega Viewpoints exercise. It helps that all the performers have developed a fondness for and intimacy with each other over the past four days.

I’ll probably flesh this out more in my actual review (or not, I don’t know what form that response is going to take yet) of Journey to Nowhere, but as much as I am all for the Southernmost format, I still have my reservations about the kinds of imagery and sloganic text that Xiaoyi likes using, and using repeatedly across productions and time – although this really could be a matter of taste. We also have external spectators in the room for the open rehearsal (2pm to 6pm), and it’s interesting to attempt to gauge their reactions to the half-formed work. I ask one of them what she thinks, and she tells me about the gendered relationship she’s interpreted of a particular scene that she finds odd because it isn’t referenced in any of the other excerpts, and she read into it associations with the #MeToo movement. This is something that hasn’t occurred to me as someone so embedded in the behind-the-scenes intentions of the work, but it’s fascinating to see how a single scene, out of context, is already producing its interpretive garden of forking paths.

I've taken 80 pages of notes over five days. (Photo: Emergency Stairs)
80 pages of notes in five days. (Photo: Emergency Stairs)

Here’s a break from our regular programming to say: this daily writing practice has done wonders for my discipline. The plan this week was to attend daily 9am to 6pm rehearsals with the practitioners and Xiaoyi for Journey to Nowhere, followed by the daily masterclass with Didik and Rady from 7pm to 10pm. Unfortunately I’ve had to miss out on the evening classes because it would have left me with no time to write. But I will be attending the masterclass showcase this coming Friday (Nov 9) – I can’t wait. (This week I’ve been writing from about 8.30pm to 12.30am every day with no time to properly edit any of my posts, they just go straight into the world in horrible unedited shapes – I was hoping to revisit them and clean them up after the festival but I think that will be a long time yet…)

In that vein – a concern I had, which I shared with Xiaoyi, is how overstretched Didik and Rady are from 13-hour days. I wondered if it might have been possible for the masterclass to have been conducted the week before. Xiaoyi acknowledged this; the reason was financial and had been very difficult to make. It constantly frustrates me how this system – which isn’t entirely Emergency Stairs’ fault – demands extraordinary labour from artists. Day 4 was also the day where all the physical hiccups began to show up – Didik’s voice was sounding a little hoarse and he was coughing, and Rady stubbed his toe while performing and almost dislodged a toenail. They’d recovered by the day after, but it’s still been bugging me. Shimizu-san, with his insane touring schedule, flew back to Tokyo on Wednesday night for a performance and will only be back on Saturday morning on the red eye flight, barely in time for the first 3pm show that day. Ee Vian had to miss a few hours of rehearsal for her regular roster of teaching jobs with private students.

I know these really aren’t uncommon scheduling challenges for any performing arts company, but I thought I had to talk about how stretched artists can be as they juggle ways to make ends meet, and how this really shouldn’t be normalised as “starving/struggling for your art” or valorised as a symbol of one’s commitment to a craft. We only had two hours with the entire cast in the same room – and even then it’s been a luxury to spend so many full days with almost all of the practitioners in one place. And in the vein of ensuring that artists are cared for and have a safety net, sure, there’s going to be a freelance resource centre set up for artists in Singapore, but I wonder why we haven’t already implemented an equity system, emulating similar unions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Maybe I’m idealistic, but sometimes I wonder if our system is so broken that burnt out, overworked artists and production teams have become the norm. I know I’ve sometimes been afraid to say ‘no’ to projects even when I’ve been overworked because, well, you never know when your next project will come in to give you another brief period of financial stability.

To every creative practitioner out there, I wish you the utmost care for your bodies, the instrument of your work.