05 April 2012

The Night I Confronted the Malayan Tiger

I just witnessed a love affair last night. A love for the Malayan Tiger and an ode to the great beast from polymath Ho Tzu Nyen. Together with a few renowned Singaporean musicians (George Chua - Singapore's pioneering sound artist; Dharma - guitarist from The Observatory and Throb; Ray Aziz - drummer from Opposition Party and The Observatory amongst many of his illustrious involvement in some of the most vital bands from this island; and Rizman Putra - main man of Singapore's art rock group, Tiramisu). Ho presented a production which is neither a music concert nor theatre nor dance; a 21st century high-art live experience or post-post modernist shenanigan? It could have been both and more.

The entire hour of the performance was filled with tension; the tension between the music and the thematic thread running through, the tension between the nuanced dance moves of the Malayan Tiger by Osman Hamid in the gigantic box and the surrounding audio-sensory overload of the musicians, the tension between the words and the shroud-black stage and strobing lights and rays, and the list can just go on ad infinitum. The resolution of these fields of tension seems secondary to the overriding vision of Ho and his band of merry musicians: it is about foregrounding a sacred mission of riding the Tiger, perhaps, and a lament for this endangered beast in this seemingly progressive 21st century.

The multiplicity of the production is redolent of many post 1970s multi-media/inter-media platforms done by many international artistes, from Steve Reich to Robert Wilson to Robert Ashley. It is a platform which has the possibility to create a potentially powerful multi-dimensional immersion of the senses. Straight narrative is secondary in many of similar staging, the key thing being harnessing technology with the integration/fusion of traditionally separated art forms like music, theatre and dance, just to name three of the most common. Unlike, say musicals, which actually fused the three said art forms since the 19th century successfully in both commercial and critical sense, Ho's production, is all about evocation and confrontation. The early experiments of the Cabaret Voltaire by the dada collective in Zurich can be seen as its more appropriate predecessors. The heavy amp stack-up of the venue which accentuates the thunderous roar of the chosen musical genre, Doom Metal, feels like a scream of loss, of despair and of course, of doom. The plight of the Tiger is thus carefully fitted into the schema of the performance.

The text shown overhead the box where Osman Hamid prowls and lurches within does not enhance the impact of Ho's intent, in fact it is more of a distraction. The music, the lighting and the overall atmosphere stripped Osman Hamid of his potential to express more in the one hour. Perhaps the glimpses of the Tiger and its truncated bodily moves in the box is an intentional act but Osman Hamid could have done more. At the end of the entire performance, I walked away impressed with the music mainly as I felt as though I have just witnessed Scott Walker conducting his maverick vision of a doom metal ensemble after he has ingested the myths and fables of the Southeast Asian tropics.

All in all, a partial success and a valiant attempt on Ho's part; a unique vision of tapping into the local mythologies and its rich association in this increasingly aliening modern mind and land scapes of this island republic. I am awaiting parts 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Kwok.

Interviews with director Ho Tzu Nyen and three of the musicians:

From Ho Tzu Nyen:

1. What went into the choice of the Malayan Tiger as the main theme of the production? Was there a conscious effort at tapping into the semi-mythical status of the Tiger in this region?

ANS:  I don’t think I chose the Tiger. I believe that the Tiger chose me, and the Tiger knew that I would end up working with this bunch of people, and end up creating a theatrical ritual in order to manifest itself. Tigers have returned occasionally to haunt Singapore. I believe that Lee Kuan Yew once described working with the communists as “riding a tiger”.

2. Why was there this impetus to foreground the ritualistic and non-word/musical elements?

ANS: The Tiger demanded it to be thus. I serve merely its wishes.

3. Doom Metal figures prominently in the EDM of the production. Why this particular sub-genre of Extreme Metal and not Fourth World musics of the Jon Hassell/indigenous music fusion?

ANS: Personally, I’m just interested in some bands that have been classified as “doom metal”. I find the intense physicality of the music extremely interesting. But I have very little interest in its ideology and imagery. After all, we are singing the Song of the Brokenhearted Tiger…which I guess is not usual subject matter for “Doom Metal” – though the Malayan Tiger certainly met its doom in Singapore. 

But when the Malayan Tiger is alive, it is majestic, imperious and foul tempered. One has the sense that it experiences time way more slowly than we do, and yet when it goes for the kill, it is lightning quick.

3. How closely synthesized are the various elements in this production; is there room for any aleatoric processes or is it entirely rehearsed?

ANS: The world is neither rehearsed nor aleatoric, but both at the same time. Chance does not happen out of nothing, but rather through an intense chain of causality too complex for the scale of our perception. We are completely rehearsed, yet completely open to chance at the same time.

4. How is this production different from your recent film, "EARTH"? (This is just a sidetrack: how did you link up with Black To Comm for the soundtrack of "EARTH'?)

ANS: In EARTH, I was possessed by a number of paintings in which the human body was depicted in a state of suspension. And with The Song of the Brokenhearted Tiger, we are trying to suspend the bodies of the audience, so that we will collectively be ready to be possessed by the ghost of the brokenhearted tiger, and hear its song.

I had the opportunity to present EARTH in Berlin, and I thought it would be nice to ask Black to Comm aka Marc Richter if he would like to perform a ‘live’ score for it. I am a big fan of his work. He agreed, and used materials he was producing for his new album for the performance, which turned out really brilliantly. We were quite spellbound. Then Marc suggested using the film as a way to organise the album, and for Vindicatrix aka David Aird to compose his words to. 

5. What can we expect from the subsequent 2 parts of this purported trilogy?

ANS:  In the second part of the trilogy, I hope to bring back voices of the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army (MPAJA) in the form of songs and poems about lost comrades, dreams that would never be, and above all, love for the forest. In the third part, I would like to do something about the “Tiger of Malaya” – General Yamashita, who led the Japanese invasion of Malaya during the Second World War. Like the MPAJA who later formed the nucleus of the Malayan Communist Party, Japanese soldiers have become part of the mythology of the tropical Southeast Asian forest.

6. Is there any eco-message behind the production?

ANS:   There are no messages behind this production.  We are interested only in sensations.

 From the musicians:
1. Is there a narrative thread consciously weaved into this production when you are designing/composing the music/soundtrack?

 George Chua: Sort of. Depends on which side of the mountain you are looking at the tiger from.

Dharma: Initially, not so much. It was more based on references from Tzu Nyen, the director. But as we rehearsed, it kind of came together and somehow supported the flow of the story.

Rizman Putra: A personal journey becomes a representative thread for the piece. Narrative is written for a wholesome listening flow and when delivered, could be interpreted in a million ways.

2. Who came up with the idea of using doom metal as the main sonic signifier of the production and what are the reasons for this decision? What kind of relationship does doom metal have with the Malayan Tiger?

 George Chua: Did anyone choose a main sonic signifier? For a while we were trying hip hop for some parts but failed. Honestly. 

Can a sub-genre of metal music have any semblance to a real living creature apart from its fate? Doom. LOL.

Dharma: Doom in general has a relationship with everything that is alive or has once tasted life – life will come to an end somehow. Doom metal is doom with distortion and big amps, just a loud and heavy mode of expressing the apocalypse. The Malayan (white) Tiger was living in threat of extinction for a long while… hence the relationship.

Rizman Putra: Doom Metal is in within us without us knowing. We had to unravel or perhaps rekindle with the sensation from within the deepest and darkest place in our hearts. Doom Metal and the Malayan Tiger are connected in broken parts, it is in the depths of our sonic exploration to discover this predicament. We don't have to go all the way to Malaysia to find the connection, we can find it here through our imagination. And that makes it special.

3. One important historical function of music has always been its role as a medium in the spiritual/religious realms of human existence. Is this an attempt to resuscitate this partially forgotten function in the composition of the music/soundtrack to the production?

 George Chua: Not yet.

Dharma: Never thought about this as a resuscitating attempt here. But if it does work that way for some (of the audience), that would be great!

Rizman Putra: Hopefully, the music that we have created will assist the slumbering souls to rise out from their comfort (listening) zone and peel their ears to the maximum. It is not as a form of resuscitation but as a form of a portal that will link their wicked souls to cling on to the wings of the 3 Tigers through a journey of desolation, aggression and bliss.

4. What can the audience expect to experience in the bodily/tactile/sonic sense during the production? (I can understand if you do not want to disclose too much before the production commence its run but if possible...)

 George Chua: It's possible that if they don't know us, they may be scared by us.

Rizman Putra: A blissful doom.

5. Is there any direct attempt at signifying the Tiger in your music/sounds or is it more of in an atmospheric way or done as a sonic narrative?

 George Chua: Musically we tried to roar. And the roar is loud. But then again so is the lion’s.

Dharma: Yes there are some direct attempts at sounding like the Tiger as well.

Rizman Putra: I am not sure if there is a direct attempt, but when you are inside the forest, it is natural for you to feel the presence of another being looking at you, ready to pounce you from behind. The only way to survive is to hold on to your mic, and sing, to save your life and the life of others. We are all hunters and we are all tigers, we are the victims and we are the destroyers.

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