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George Chua on the makings of Smokescreen - "peace in the midst of the maelstrom"

George Chua on the makings of Smokescreen -

George makes his special come back on modular synth inspired by the writings of Paul Virilio, the figure of Liu Bai Yuan in Wuxia films along with the global information war we are experiencing.

Through our many musical interactions at the vault, he has personally taught us to seek the meditative qualities in all sorts of music through our short but sweet listen-ing sessions together. Luckily for us, we now have the opportunity to go deeper with George and pick at his approach - a detached, but informed practice with the foreign but familiar.

George Chua - Smokescreen | Ujikaji Records

1. Hi George! To begin, we just wanted to say congrats on the imminent release of Smokescreen! Could you start off with a little about yourself and your musical pilgrimage?

Hi TAV! Kind of hard to talk about oneself. Maybe this works: 2020 is the year that our national paper deems art as least essential but it is also the year I am coming back to be more active in making art. Both music and other forms. I am currently working on a project dealing with the body and I am going to dance a culture-less dance.

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2. We are always really happy to catch you visiting the vault, especially listening to music together! Have record stores been an important place for your musical search? Could you recall a memorable experience or a particular album that was formative for you?

Record stores were a big part of my formative years. DADA Records and BigO magazines (when it was still Xeroxed) were like open portals to other worlds during my teenage years.

Dada Records

Picture - Straits Time Article  (December 21st, 2015 ) 

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3. With that said, how do you take inspiration from the music you have grown to love and at the same time shape your own? We read that for Smokescreen you worked with a modular synth — could you elaborate more on the choice of instrument and your relationship to it?

I don’t think about inspiration much. I just pursue my obsession without waiting for anyone to give me permission. Being a full-time artist for nine years before my long break, I've learned the only way to be patient is not to wait for inspiration.

I started using modular synths because there are sonic experiments that I would like to conduct that only a customized modular system can satisfy. I was also sick of using the computer.

My relationship with my modular synth this season is one of detachment. Having worked with it for countless hours. I want to look at it with new eyes every time I use it. I no longer fiddle with it but look at it like a foreign object that I am very familiar with.

George Chua Live Performance | Quiet Hours | Evening Chants Dec' 2019

Photo was taken from Evening Chant's Facebook Page
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4. We are also curious to know how you approach electronic music with a sense of improvisation, especially when working with a particular instrument. Do you work with loops? How do you know when a particular track is ready?

The tyranny of function is what plagues the majority of electronic music that claims to be forward-thinking. It is ultimately very rule base in how the music progresses and breakdown. As DJ tools to serve a particular purpose and created to please. I am a fan of techno music and have great respect for that sort of tradition. (yes I think it has become traditional though I enjoy it.) But as an artist, I question that in my music.

If you meant sampled loops, there are none. There are sequences that loop itself in a wobbly way though. My recent music is usually never ready. It almost feels like the listener starts listening in halfway through a conversation that ends abruptly. I think the sentiments that complete the album is enough rather than ready. It is in a state of uncertainty and never ready. It is the electronic device that has no more energy in the Eveready battery ad, yet continues to fight on with a mysterious surge of energy.

Photo Taken from George Chua's Discogs Page

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5. Since working on a modular, we would assume that you cannot save presets and every moment would always be slightly different. How then would you approach a recording session?

The difference is what I am interested in and being a kind of rhythm (very broken) music, it is the slightly different that makes it human. Nature never creates perfect straight lines and I like to inject that into cold machine music.

Also, this album has a No Wave sensibility inform by my love for the kind of structure and rhythm of No Wave music particularly the band DNA. (Their drummer Ikue Mori has released lots of underrated solo albums with drum machines. Go check it out!) What goes into the recording session is a lot of gut feel and intuition. Mix with calculated patching of the modular system.

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6. With this being your first set of original music in more than a decade, what propelled you to put out Smokescreen now?

Time and chance happens to all. I felt like I have been making lots of music all these while. Every concert I play it's a new piece of music I don’t revisit again. With the instigation of Ujikaji, there was mention of making an album in 2017 that lead to a performance at Arts Science Museum and the creation of this album which was completed in 2018. I am as surprised that this music is going to be released this year when Ujikaji contacted me that they are releasing it this year.

ArtScience Late: Ujikaji Presents George Chua & Wu Jun Han | 2017

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7. We read that the album was inspired by the writings of Paul Virilio, could you enlighten us a little about his work and how you apply concepts of non-music to sound.

It may take pages to talk about his work but suffice to say that his writings create a kind of framework to understand the times we live in, so this is like an imagined soundtrack among countless possible imagined ones.

Paul Virilio

Photo was taken from Thought Leader | Mail & Guardian

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8. After listening to your first single “Neo Punggol”, we can’t help but envision motifs of dystopia and chaos. What’s the significance of Punggol to you and why focus on that in this track?

The dystopia vibe could be a result of the very fun video by Avis. Both dystopia and utopia live on the same plane like pleasure and pain. I hope to transcend that. Punggol is a place my father used to work at decades ago when it was still rural and rustic. My childhood memory of Punggol is very different. Today it has a Truman show vibe to it. While the music feels chaotic because of the abrupt shift in the rhythm yet if you focus on a still point in the music, you can find peace in the midst of the maelstrom.

George Chua - Neo Punggol

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9. We can also hear small little vocal snippets behind “Neo Punggol”, could you explain how you go about choosing samples or recording them for Smokescreen if any? How do you interplay it with your sound and know when to bring things in and out.

My choice of samples is intuitive in nature. I have a module in my system that works like a radio with samples inside. Like a radio you can tune in to the various “stations” and samples will start from a midpoint as in a song that is playing on the radio that you tuned into. So what you heard that sound like an intentional choice on my part is a mix of intuitive modulating and patching with serendipity.

In this album, the rhythms I use are not just musical but what I imagine the rhythm of a fight is like. It is the movement of warfare and physical combat. When the face is within range, it time to punch and there is no time to think.

Everything is mix live, the only post-production is the editing of the length and mastering.

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10. Smokescreen is getting released by Ujikaji, who has been pushing experimental sounds in Singapore for a long time now. What has your relationship with the label been like?

Mark from Ujikaji is a wonderfully passionate music fan, archivist, and friend. Also, I am a regular customer of his mail order service and have played in many Ujikaji concert events. It’s been lots of great fun being part of what the label is doing all these years

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11. Could you name some of your personal favorites from the Ujikaji catalog?

I enjoy all the releases and many are by fellow musicians who make really interesting music. These two are the ones I played the most on my turntable : 

The Observatory remix album (interesting takes on Obs music) and Spectral Arrows by Marco Fusinato.

The Observatory - Behind These Eyes: The Catacombs Remixes

Marco Fusinato - Spectral Arrows

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12. Lastly, what would you like to impart to listeners when they dig into Smokescreen?

I have no message and nothing, in particular, to impart except an impenetrable question for the world we live in, shrouded with secrecy and a lack of transparency. What is behind the Smokescreen?

Smokescreen is out on 16th September 2020 

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