5 Minutes With… Song-Ming Ang, Venice Biennale Artist
Sound and music may form the basis of his art today, but for Singaporean contemporary artist Song-Ming Ang, one of his first musical encounters, which involved learning to play the recorder, was less of an enjoyable experience. “Like almost every child, I first encountered the recorder during music lessons in primary school. It’s probably fair to say that many of us didn’t enjoy the learning process, as 40 children simultaneously blowing hard into their recorders can sound very uncoordinated and dissonant.”
Despite this, the musical instrument left an indelible note on him for it led to the making of a three-channel film installation, Recorder Rewrite—the centrepiece of his presentation, Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme, at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Inspired by the Music for Everyone concert series by the then-Ministry of Culture of Singapore in the 1970s to encourage public appreciation of the arts, Ang’s multidisciplinary presentation, comprising film, digital prints, sculptures and banners, will be on show at the Arsenale – Sale d’Armi in Venice from May 11 to November 24.
The show is “an alternative vision to Music for Everyone—something more ‘ground up’ than ‘top down’, and based on egalitarianism and improvisation”, Ang explains. Recorder Rewrite, for example, features children from diverse cultural and musical backgrounds performing their own composition. “Sometimes art that appears simple or amateurish gets dismissed for looking untechnical. So if visitors leave the show thinking, ‘Oh, I could do that too’, I’d take it as a compliment. It probably means that they feel empowered by the works.”
What is the appeal of sound and music as an art form?
Song-Ming Ang (SA) I see myself as a translator between art and music, and my responsibility as an artist is to draw the various connections that we have to music, both as individuals and as a society. I think about how music is produced, disseminated and experienced—kind of an equivalent to what we know as visual culture, but performed in relation to the aural.
When does sound become art?
SA My approach to art‑making is very organic, even though it happens within well‑defined boundaries. I use sound or music as a starting point for my artworks. For example, I sample songs, remake musical instruments, or simply work with anything that’s related to the sonic. But the outcomes can differ greatly in terms of medium and tone. Very often, the work ends up not being about sound or music anymore—it’s actually a game that I play with my audience.
What did you discover from your research on the history of music in Singapore?
SA I discovered the Music for Everyone concerts through their posters via the National Archives of Singapore. There were about 100 posters of concerts organised by the then-Ministry of Culture and the now-defunct National Theatre Trust. What struck me was the government’s dedication to introduce music to the people. Yet, upon closer look, you’ll realise that the programmes are centred on Western music appreciation, nation‑building and forging diplomatic relations. There were state agendas at work, and it made for a good starting point for me to examine as an artist.
How do you define “music for everyone”?
SA I’m taking “everyone” to mean the Everyman or layperson—people who don’t necessarily know anything about art—which partly overlaps with the Ministry of Culture’s definition. The main difference is that the artworks are informed by improvisation and play—in a less formal and more collaborative, egalitarian way. All of them employ the use of very simple techniques or materials.
(Related: Meet Kumari Nahappan, The Singaporean Artist Who Likes Her Art Hot And Spicy)
What does Recorder Rewrite tell us about how people relate to music?
SA When we were looking for participants for Recorder Rewrite, we didn’t specify musical proficiency as a requirement. We started with a two-day music workshop, first to impart creative techniques of playing the recorder, and then improvisation exercises to help them compose a piece of their own. There was another day of choreographic rehearsal before we shot the film over two days. For me, making collaborative works, particularly with children, can produce unexpected results. It also provides an opportunity for them to customise their experiences for themselves.
- Images DYLON GOH/NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL SINGAPORE (SONG-MING ANG) AND MIZUKI KIN (POSTERS, Music Manuscripts and Recorder Sculptures)