By Azmyl Yunor
Penang-born Goh Lee Kwang deserves his due credit in the “Malaysia Boleh” rhetoric; he has toured Europe in 2004 (“Europe Pleasures Tour”) way before the Siti-hype at Carnegie Hall. Along with fellow sound/ visual/ installation recluses Klang-born-Melbourne-based Yeoh Yin Pin, Tham Kar Mun and Yandsen Yong, they have received accolades internationally for their D.I.Y. individual works and the successful Xing-Wu (2004) compilation. They also deserve a place in the Malaysian Book of Records title for making the most out of the mundane (Lee Kwang is Malaysia’s sole master exponent of the broken VCD player).
While listening to their work and attending their performances are not exactly one’s idea of a ‘leisure activity’, their playfulness in using everyday objects and tools as sound instruments is exciting if one is willing to suspend one’s preconceptions of ‘experimental music’ or ‘noise’ and question one’s own practiced and socialised listening habits (and also willing to test the threshold of one’s ear drums).
Lee Kwang’s approach to his current work can be traced back to his Diploma in Fine Art from the Malaysian Institute of Art, in which he majored in oil painting and drawing which later spurred his music interests in the 90s with computer softwares and exploration into non-traditional instrument forms of sound making. He has released 7 albums of works since 2001 on his own Herbal Records
He recently returned from Germany after a 15 month grant/ fellowship stint at the Akademie Schloss Solitude of Stuttgart, which culminated with the CD Internal Pleasures – solo improvisation with stereo DJ mixer in August 2004 and the subsequent tour of 10 cities in Ireland, Germany, France and The Netherlands, and other music/sound festival in Europe.
Since his medium of choice is electronic, I thought it would be fitting to catch up with him electronically via email. He is now based at Rumah Air Panas (RAP) in Setapak and is planning an exhibition there from 10-31 December for which he is currently on the lookout for interested sponsors.
I think this is a question many would ask: Why do you do it? Why don’t you just be normal, buy a tuner? Or at least buy a VCD player that works? Do you listen to ‘normal’ music, or at least rock n’ roll music?
Well, first of all, I don’t need a tuner because I can use my ear to tune if I wanted to, but the problem is that my guitar prefers to stay out of tune, and I must listen to it if I still want to be friends with it, especially when you cannot play very well and don’t play it very often, the guitar becomes the boss. And the reason why I don’t want to use a new CD player is because I’m worried that somebody might take it back home before I start to play it, you know most people just want everything to stay as they were before… Rich stay rich and poor stay poor!
But it is a good idea to play a VCD player with a tuner…
Don’t get me wrong: I still listen to “normal” music everyday. I might even go as far as to say that I’m more of a rocker today than I have ever been before! I listen to local bands like Furniture, Maharajah Commission and many more! Rock n’ Roll is still the best commercial music ever produced and I don’t see why I should stop listening to them.
My personal favorite CD of yours is Punk Guitar which ruffled many punk purists as to how un-punk it was, which is ironically ‘punk’ to me in its very essence. Do you intentionally try to capture ephemeral moments such as that? Or is being spontaneous an important aspect of your work? Do you intentionally leave interpretation and meaning to the listener?
At that time I almost stopped playing my guitar completely and was a bit sick of people talking about punk like it was a fashion or trend. I listened back to my guitar demos, in which the earliest dated as far back as 1998, I discovered some material to work with. The music was very raw and some of it was recorded in a very ‘brutal’ way, i.e.: place the walkman behind the amplifier, place the microphone to the body of the acoustic guitar, and use the microphone as the pick to strum the guitar.
Although most of the recording was unusable, I collected parts that were still ok and sampled them to compose a new piece. Some of the recordings remained in its original form, completely improvised and unedited.
I recall the backing track of the Wim Wimder’s film King Of The Road while I was approaching this work which consisted of a bluesy acoustic guitar, a very short riff, but effective. That’s why some tracks in Punk Guitar are short but expansive, like a landscape.
You re-released ‘Punk Guitar’ recently with many added bonuses.
Actually I just added one bonus track that was recorded in Germany. Every couple of hours a year, I have an urge to touch and play the guitar. Luckily there was someone in the management office that had an acoustic guitar and was going off for a holiday for about a month, so I borrowed it from her.
I don’t think anybody can tell that the track was recorded with an acoustic guitar (It is the last track). As I plugged the guitar to the DJ mixer so that I can have a stereo out, I realised that as I raised the volume, the whole room start to buzz. I think it was the acoustic pick up inside the guitar reacting with the studio speakers. That whole track was just about how I can stop the humming.
I used more acoustic guitar tracks more then electric guitar (with one on a nylon stringed guitar) on Punk Guitar, but it’s hard to tell from the final result because of the way it was recorded and mixed.
I remastered Punk Guitar in Germany and after I returned to Malaysia to make the recording sharper, cleaner, and clearer. I also cut the total running time from 50 mins+ to 30mins+ but it felt too short for me as an album, so I included the 18 mins + Germany track.
You did an installation exhibition in Germany. Care to elaborate?
Officially I did 3 exhibitions plus some small installations and presentations. I had initially set up a sound and visual installation piece called “Vibrate Weather” in September 2004 at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, where I was staying at. It is hard to talk about this particular work since it is a big, physical piece of work which required a lot help from my friends there.
Then I was invited to set up another sound installation for a music festival also in Stuttgart, Germany in December 2004. The piece I created was called “Rhythm Jukebox”. It is an ‘interative installation’ in which the audiences are invited to be a part of the work. It consisted of a turntable without the LP (I replaced it with a laser disc), made some coin holes on the cover, and displayed it with Christmas accessories. I subtitled it “Christmas Version”. I also had to re-set up this work again on August 2005 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and re-titled it “Summer Version”.
The audiences have to put the coins on the top of the laser disc and when the needle hit the coins, it changes the rhythms. I like this piece very much especially when I see the audiences put in the coins, and concentrate on the small changes in the sound they make.
In February 2005, I had a solo exhibition in a private gallery in Stuttgart (it was actually billed as a dual exhibition with Lau Mun Leng titled called “n desir”). It was a 3 day exhibition and even though it was in late winter, we managed to collect door tickets for the opening, which is unusual, and a lot of the locals came. The total attendance for the 3 days came up to about 100 people.
What was the idea behind Internal Pleasures?
Internal Pleasures was a step forward after the use of the VCD player. It was a solo improvisation work with a DJ mixer. I found the DJ mixer at a flee market in Stuttgart two or three weeks after I arrived. When I bought it, I wasn’t sure whether it was functioning or if it was something I want to work with. I had never used a DJ mixer before and also knew very little about them.
I brought it back to Malaysia and it is now my main live instrument. It has two phono ins, three microphone ins and three line ins, one stereo out and one tape, a very complex small piece of metal. When I connected it similar to the way I used to connect the VCD player, the output feed-back to input, it became stereo. The sound was warm and textured. When you hear it, you can feel it too, especially live. But it is not a ‘new’ sound, it is an ‘old’ sound, far too old to be remembered. I would say that the sound is older than the electric guitar.
The album was fully produced in Germany and released on August 2004. I started the supporting tour in September. It is the best packaged album I have released to date! The response in Europe was good. It received positive reviews online. The CD and the tour really opened up my eyes to European experimental music scene.
What are some of the obstacles of doing experimental music in Malaysia?
Venues: where can we perform experimental music on a regular basis in Malaysia? Most venues tend to cater for rock bands or electronic dance music. Although experimental music is neither one of them, sometimes we can try to fit it in to those scenes, and of course I am very much happy to do so too.
The fact is experimental music does not make money, but that’s good because then we know the people who are into experimental music are here for the love of it, not for the money because there is none. We talk and share of what we know, not the profit.
Do you think the experimental ‘scene’ has been misunderstood by many? Some claim it is ‘elitist’.
I think most people in Malaysia have yet to think beyond of the idea of what is considered ‘pop’ or popular culture. If you think playing an instrument, forming a band and singing songs out loud is a very independent freedom kind of thing, you are wrong. That is just another [part of the] ‘pop’ scene! Politics and fast food are also part of the popular culture. I can simplify what is ‘pop’: Whatever you see on TV, hear on radio, read in the newspaper/ magazine, they are all a part of ‘pop’ culture. Even if one day I happen to make into the magazines, I will become a part of what can be considered ‘pop’. Even the DJs, VJs, reporters don’t know or don’t care. They are part of it, part of the system and culture, but they are not aware of it. That’s the saddest part. They promote what they think they like it, without knowing in the first place what it is, what it stands for.
So they think they know what they’ve known, want everything to sound like what they know. And that’s the total opposite from the notion of being “experimental”. An experimental approach leaves all the ‘known’ behind and breaks into the unknown!
Would you recommend it as a good career move for the MTV generation?
The MTV generation are outdated! I recommend experimental music, sound or noise to the ‘Ringtone Generation’ because they care about sound too and there is a demand in the market for good sound quality for the mobile phone!
There is something I like to point out that is often misleading: if you produce a CD and the record stores tell you that it cannot sell, there’s nothing wrong with your work; that is just the weakness of the record stores because they are unable to sell it. The disability of the record stores has nothing to do with your work.
That’s what makes the music industry worse. The Nokia handphone and the Samsung etc. handphone designs and functions will never be standardised or be the same. But can you tell the difference between the CD products of most records labels?
2003 was an important year, in my opinion, for EMACM (Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-op Malaysia, started by Lee Kwang and friends). I have fond memories of the EMACM tour and notably playing in the alley behind the Malaysian Chinese Assembly Hall in KL next to a Chinese pop-star’s meet-the-fans session. What are your thoughts on that?
Correction: it wasn’t behind, it was beside Chinese Assembly Hall… and it was at the main entrance to the hall. That tour also sounds like a miracle! I remember the “full house” concert at the CHING LOTUS, Penang. Before the concert, there was a press interview and the first question was: “What is your song about? Politics or melancholy?”
Music should be more than that!
With your success in Europe, I’m sure you can at least afford a VCD player that works now?
Yalah… The VCD player is getting cheaper nowadays! But now I prefer my work to be in stereo and the DJ mixer can do that. It is however much more expensive. If anybody has a broken DJ mixer I don’t mind keeping it…
If you would like to give Lee Kwang a broken DJ mixer, or sponsor his upcoming exhibition, or provide him a venue, you can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website.
His work is also be featured at the CABIN of National Art Gallery from 3- 31 Dec 2005. Besides the exhibition, he is organising alternative events such as “Live Radio”, presenting sound works he likes, at Reka Art Space, on the first Tuesday of every month. He is also currently curating the Why Not Ltd series, which consists of 40 limited edition CD-Rs from specially invited artists all over the world. Meanwhile, he tries to produce two albums a month.
Azmyl Yunor is a rocker and folker and has been unfavourably called the Bob Dylan of Malaysia.
First Published: 17.11.2005 on Kakiseni