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The above is the American music critic and journalist John Rockwell’s appraisal of the Phillip Glass Ensemble’s spring 1973 performance of Music in Changing Parts. The work is unequivocally spellbinding—and though one of the more obscure items in Glass’ stacked oeuvre, marks an important moment in the then-36-year-old composer’s arc. It affirmed his alignment to the hypnotic rock ‘n’ roll currents that were entering the cultural bloodstream at the time, and, pivotally, emphasised how constructive the deconstructive urge could be.
In the course of history, disruption has proven to be one of the foremost forces driving creation. Some of the most pivotal innovations in culture have come from established forms being dissected and reinvigorated with new meaning and new possibilities. Jazz, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll all come from canons that are updated by those brave enough to challenge the old laws, to break free from the old world. Then, there is the orchestra—a format so saddled with ideology that it is a veritable totem of the old world, of its hang-ups and boundaries. This makes it absolutely ripe for the picking apart.
Rockwell’s description of Glass’ path-lighting performance underscores why breakthroughs are necessary: They illuminate the future with hope. When more can be done, more will be done.
As it eases out of COVID-19, Singapore needs an actualisation of that axiom. The past couple of years have been particularly trying, and if there is one arena of life that has proven to be a reliable fount of resilience, it is art. And if hope is the goal, the means and the canvas is RATA Orkestra.
Directed by Safuan Johari, RATA: new grounds, new sounds features a lineup of six likeminded musicians, each of whom has been intractably crucial to Singapore’s musical topography: Azrin Abdullah (oud), Andy Chia (dizi, didgeridoo, electronics), Cheryl Ong (percussion), Safuan Johari (electronics), Rizman Putra (vocals), weish (vocals). Rendering a visual complement to their aural detonations, is Brandon Tay, an artist whose work resounds with ceiling-breaking force.
Converging as RATA, these disparate creative energies will close the year and Esplanade’s In New Light season of commissions to mark its 20th anniversary, demonstrating how the orchestra can be re-thought and reconfigured within the context of immersive audio-visual performance. Within its conception and realisation are keys that will unlock more possibilities.
At its most fundamental, RATA: new grounds, new sounds is what happens when philosophy becomes praxis. Malay for ‘flat’ or ‘even’, RATA is a concept charged with a rich valence. As Safuan reveals, “Esplanade wanted me to create a flat-floor music experience for the new Singtel Waterfront Theatre. So, the first thing that occurred to me was rata: Open, flat, egalitarian. I’ve collaborated with the six musicians in different permutations before. But this is about improvisation, which, as an ideal, is all about equality, and I wanted to try composing together as an equal unit”.
In traditional—read: Western—orchestral contexts, a vast number of musicians guided by a literal conductor, plays music inherited from and authored by titanic names whose legacy, though deserved and incontestable, has a strong gatekeeping effect. With its insistence on flatness and non-hierarchy, RATA marks a paradigmatic shift from the codes of the established canon.
Unlearning the inherited legacy of the past—the old rules—has been crucial to the realisation of RATA’s aims. For Safuan, “breaking down the basic molecules of what makes sound sound” is a beacon which guides his approach. But proceeding where its light falls requires breaking the shackles of ideology.
Her admission acknowledges just how ingrained certain ways of thinking about, perceiving and making music are. Safuan concurs, outlining that even experimental music isn’t without its built-in biases: “A big part of the initial sessions was realising that, even as experimental musicians, we tend to conform to certain tropes. So, the aim then became to work together to create new rules”.
Within its egalitarian framework, RATA unspools from a dynamic process in which each musician is kept on their toes: Playing a game of ally and enemy, in which the musicians are divided into two separate groups that either challenge (enemy) or complement (ally) each other’s output. With this process, the each constituent of RATA is pushed to constantly new limits that foster discovery and resist stagnation.
Breaking free of Western modalities, ridding themselves of the tyranny of scales, the rigidity of timing, and even the obligation to be polite—limitingly polite to each other to the point where it stifles the manifestation of the creative magic—RATA is poised to be an example of how the old ways of regarding the orchestra can be flattened into oblivion, in the creation of a new world.
Pushing ashore from established Western codes of conduct is a rich lineage to which RATA now belongs. Those ranks are staffed with truly phenomenal exemplars: There’s German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who rose to infamy with his jawdropping Helicopter String Quartet, that, besides a string quartet, requires four helicopters to be successfully executed. In India, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan blazed a niche for next-level Indian orchestras by adopting the Western idea of an orchestra as a large number of musicians playing as one, but expanding the orchestral form to accommodate the rich utterance of Hidustani classical music, which itself has been subjected to his improvisations in pacing and tonality.
Those words are weish’s. Her observation is deeply illuminating within and beyond the context of RATA and testifies to one of the founding tenets of a musical avant grade whose shadow over all next-level instrumentally forward music endures.
Classical orchestras are limited not just by propriety but by cost. The high barriers to entry are part and parcel of a format that requires formal training as well as a massive budget to put together. But if you’re thinking outside of the (opera) box, you can go the distance with a roomful of musicians.
That’s how Glenn Branca rose to prominence. One of the most seminally trail-paving composers in the history of recorded music, Branca is the embodiment of what an orchestra can mean if it is unmoored from its conventional signifiers. In the summer of 2001, he unveiled Symphony No. 13 (Hallucination City) for 100 electric guitars at the plaza of the World Trade Centre in New York. An ‘orchestra’ composed of 100 guitars swelling and unfurling 62 minutes of sublimely deafening noise that simultaneously defies and attests to the merits of the symphonic tradition.
Besides democratising what content is ‘orchestra-worthy’, questioning just what actually constitutes an ‘orchestra’ is integral to the aim of rethinking the orchestra.
These days, technology is the difference-maker in freeing the orchestra from its conceptual and formal limitations. Today, ‘orchestral’ music can be made without people physically present in the same room. As Safuan reflects, “Technology removes the human element. We’re so used to sending files to each other over Internet now. It’s rare that you get six people in a room workshopping music from nothing. It’s exciting!
“Being in a space together changes the dynamic completely: Even something as simple as the vibration of the air when Cheryl drums, is profound”.
COVID-19, amongst other things, forced the world into a period of self-examination. Questions about what makes an orchestra—what it sounds/looks/feels like—now reverberate with higher stakes. Art is proof that nothing happens in a vacuum. And art is proof that you can, to varying extents, shape the world in its image.
That’s why rethinking the orchestra—unlearning its prejudices and doing things anew—reflects on the world at large. That’s why privileging egalitarianism over hierarchy and exploration over stagnation is essential: For better art and a better world in which that art blossoms.
A manifesto is what provides a revolution with purpose and direction. Similarly, in his undertaking to reinvent the orchestra, Safuan starts from a place that transcends abstract concepts. When asked what is sound to him, he answers: “It’s how I navigate the world”.
And thus, a new world takes shape.
Indran P is a Singaporean culture journalist particularly interested in how the various channels of popular culture intersect and impact society. His experience spans more than 10 years and throughout, he continues to explore how cultural products – the processes that lead to their creation, the various means of their consumption and the platforms that disseminate them – influence the evolution (or devolution) of society. He has been published in ZIGGY Magazine, Time Out Singapore, Esquire Singapore, JUICE Singapore and Bandwagon Asia. Currently, he is the Culture Editor of Esquire Singapore.
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