The National Library of Singapore is one of those enormous cultural complexes the city-nation has: a gigantic 4-storey building, and on the third floor a theatre with a capacity of more than 1000 spectators, The Drama Centre Theatre. This theatre was the place where T’ang quartet, in collaboration with Theatre Cryptic, put on stage “Optical Identity”(1).
T’ang quartet is a very good string quartet from Singapore, young (I don’t believe they are more than 40 years old) but with a solid artistic maturity and a great impulse for stage experimentation.
This spectacle, “Optical Identity”, offered in the Singapore Arts Festival 2007, was a real experiment; it seems it is not unique in T’ang’s trajectory, and that they have had some other experiments with music, technology and visual arts.
Theatre Cryptic is a visual performing company from Scotland that combines stage with music and video, and today it is a group with an international image.
I have to be very clear about what I saw: on the one hand, the music: an exceptional performance of very interesting works; on the other hand, the mis-en-scene: a disastrous experiment even in the use of technology, as well as the way the theatrical direction managed the performance.
There is an equation that makes my appreciation about “Optical Identity” that evening more colorful: T’ang Quartet played that night with such mastery for the simple reason that they have worked hard for many years, learning, practicing, exploring, listening; you can’t expect the same level on stage when that work could have been planned for just some months. It seems to me that the two parts, music and stage, were isolated from each other, and the creative processes were different even though it was the same performance. The big problem, I think, was that they decided the musicians would also be the dancers, the stage workers, the actors, without the same level between their musical performance and their theatrical one.
Some of the works played were memorable to listen, enjoyable and interesting; but not that experiment of sound (music) distortion, the use of the software seemed too basic, even chaotic, without route. A similar impression was caused by the live video (by the Swiss digital artist Jasch) and that computer generated video-image through, very common in performing Arts these days; I feel like having seen a technician without experience, with little talent to improvise and not many skills on stage, no rhythm in the product (video-image), nor capacity to manage visual angles; he knew how to take video and to use the software, but that’s not enough to be on stage, I think; he was not inside that musical performance.
I liked the recorded video showing T’ang quartet playing their instruments, the combinations with their naked bodies and the movements and music, very interesting: that idea of a part of a body playing music, only parts, showing details of their skins, muscles in movement, it was a visual aspect, really beautiful.
(Click here to see part of that video I’m talking about)
Even after those severe comments, the worse part of my comments is about to come: the theatrical performance (quartet T’ang were not only musicians, they were also dancers and actors and prop technicians!) and the stage direction (by Cathie Boyd). Big blocks of metal cut geometrically being used as windows, chairs, walls or nothing, sometimes they were more a problem than a practical solution; then our musician-performers had to move them during the whole performance, but the director considered that moving was simple or something and then proposed or accepted (at the end it’s the same) that they move with some attitude, with some state of… something. They also moved like dancing, then changed into percussionists, tried to keep a silent conversation between instruments and the video camera… Please, tell me, who can do all that (well done I mean) while playing music? I don’t know of anyone yet.
There was no depth nor conscience about the theatrical work. I believe the interpreters and their musical level was so much higher that the theatrical level of the stage director and the video artist.
Experimenting in Performing Arts is always welcome (from my point of view, of course), even with the problems I saw. Music performances in our days are missing something. T’ang quartet have the talent, the strength, the musical level, and they have exploring as an objective, the only thing left is to find the right artistic partners for it.
Working in the Arts in this country is a blessing; artists have a support of their authorities and institutions like I’ve never seen in my country. I saw the work of T’ang quartet, Mark Chan, and those street performers in Orchard Road. Independently of the quality of all of them, it seems to me that being an artist in Singapore is like taking part of a political idea: finding the sources of the new Singaporean cultural face beyond races and religion, Arts as the Identity of Singapore.
(1) This is the information about the T’ang quartet performance I found in the Festival site:
Optical Identity Theatre Cryptic and T'ang Quartet (UK/Singapore) Music to be seen, not just heard. A spectacle that weds sight and sound, teasing the eye while pleasing the ear! From Singapore and Scotland, a consort of talents join hands for a visual musical journey, entering a sumptuous realm of the global, sensual, virtual and real. The agility and depth of homegrown T'ang Quartet shine through their interpretation of four acclaimed contemporary composers – Kevin Volan (South Africa), Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Rolf Wallin (Norway) and a commission by Joby Talbot (UK). Directed by Cathie Boyd, artistic director of Theatre Cryptic, the stage is sculpturally styled by Singapore’s award-winning furniture designer Jason Ong and couture house BAYLENE. As if in a spell, the stage space and movement shift through music, light, object, fabric and film with interactive technologies played live by Swiss digital artist Jasch. The T’ang Quartet performs in an immersive environment not encountered before. Programme Kevin Volans White Man Sleeps Rolf Wallin Phonotope 1 (Asian Premiere) Franghiz Ali Zadeh Mugam Sayagi Joby Talbot Manual Override (World Premiere) (Duration: 80mins no intermission)