X Factor

June 17, 2014

My mother bought an electronic organ for me when I was young, and sent me twice a week to a nice Christian lady for piano lessons. I preferred cycling around Johor Bahru with reckless abandon, and playing video games with equal recklessness, and so it transpired that I wasn’t paying much attention in piano class, nor did I practise a lot at home.

But I did come away classically trained, interspersed with Christian hymns and melodies, and the occasional choral performances from my yet unbroken voice.

By the beginning of secondary school, I had already pledged my soul to Simon le Bon, Boy George and David Bowie, but then I began to start to practise some form of musical elitism. I would be discovering relatively unknown bands (at least to my schoolmates), and discarding them as soon as they became more popular. Nothing was more grating than to have some uncool kid coming up to me saying, “have you heard the new single by Depeche Mode? It’s awesome!”. Yikes!

As with all teenagers, this desire to set yourself apart only lasted through some of those formative years. By the time I reached university, I had taken with me to the states the stalwarts of my music collection; David Sylvian and Sakamoto Ryuichi, The Cure, and the Smiths. By then, I believed that the music helped shaped the man I would become, in the way I thought, the way I expressed myself, from words of the heroes I aspired to and emulated.

But much more than this was the music itself. If the literature of a particularly precocious childhood were works from Paz, Mishima, Marquez, Kundera, Rilke, Kafka and Calvino, then I was already in the hands of great masters and poets. But music was more liberating, and certainly its limits were only constrained by my imagination.

And with Jazz, in particular when you hear it live, with its improvisations and different interpretations, is an art form that is attractive beguilingly because, and at once in spite of, its flaws. There is a moment of inflection when momentum builds up, and at its zenith; perfection is reached. One could not simply bottle up this singular moment, with its limitless contributing factors – and then in an instant it vanishes.

Now, as an avowed anti-theist, I see deep spirituality in the natural world; the beauty & awe of the night skies through the telescopes, the realisation that we began as stardust; the marvel and wonder of our physical world, of biological evolution, of mathematical truths & constants, of symmetry & chaos. Of boundless knowledge, of serendipitous discoveries, the human inventions, and the human spirit.

And the validation of our ingenuity and imagination that we are capable of producing such works of art, such beautiful music.

Perfection, however fleeting.


Julian Chan speaks to me

April 30, 2014

Julian Chan is an eloquent, intelligent young man who loves gadgets and social media in perhaps equal measure, for the two are in this day and age increasingly interdependent, and so he seems to be always in the front line of both. He has found his voice on the net; he points out social injustices, polices rule-breakers on his facebook page, updates on his work, comments on funny memes and engages in friendly banter with his mates.

And when I speak to him, I find that he weighs his words carefully and his answers are never superficial. Often, they are focused and on point.

But it is onstage that he is clearest. Where he does not talk.



I first met Julian 8 years ago I thought he was naturally talented and technically sound, but he lacked the depth, range and consistency that would only come to musicians in their later years, and his improvisations suspect. Jazz is not easy – though he was already an accomplished musician – I worried for him, as I do for all young musicians, listening intently for avoid notes or errant pitches or solos they couldn’t get out of. Today when Julian’s saxophone speaks it portrays its wielder a man who is mature and confident in his craft, and when I listen I could only imagine the hard work and the experiences he went through to get to this point.

Jazz to me is a state of a high not unlike the effects of hard drugs. At its height, a wave of euphoria hits you, and at once engulfs you in an indescribable bliss, sometimes trance-induced paralysis, often gut wrenching, often almost unbearable.

When Julian speaks onstage he produces rich and assuring chords & scales that, as it builds up, you anticipate that aural moment akin to watching an injection getting closer to the arm. As he speaks, raw emotions swell up and just then, hell breaks loose.

Krishna: Love revisted

March 12, 2014

By contrast the Sutra dance company’s Krishna: Love Revisited was beautifully choreographed and a magnificent tour de force replete with stunning technicolor and surround sound, and its dancers enrapturing. The female lead was a very nubile and alluring Geethika Sree, dancing like Radha incarnate. I could not take my eyes off of her. Every move was purposeful, executed with perfection and it seemed with a little more grace than any of the others, if that was possible in an already very sensual art form. She arches a little more, her extensions a little more, and her eyes quickly darts and kills.

geethika sree ramli ibrahim

But sadly, the master must no longer dance.

As the voice-over describes each scene in the narrative, the iconic Ramli Ibrahim seemed surplus. 2 very competent male leads took turns at each half as Krishna, and the audience understands the inter-play between Krishna and Radha, and them with the other cowherd maidens, but what is the role of the other male, the Ramli role? There is no mention of him by the narrator throughout the performance. Why is there another male in the story of Krishna and Rahda?! Yet, Ibrahim’s “mystery male” takes center, dominating stage. Is it conceit that the aging superstar, who is also the choreographer & artistic director, would covet a role like this, whatever it is, for himself?

As Krishna and “mystery male” mirror each other in their movements, the difference is telling. Ibrahim is imprecise. His positioning and balance questionable. The energy levels inferior. Is it age that his eyes does not dance, and the range of his movements impeded by stiffness? I now wonder if he was ever good, that he achieved his status as a dancer* simply as novelty as a non-native in an Indian art form.

Because his eyes did not dance.

*Ramli Ibrahim is still without question a genius choreographer and artistic director

What is art?

March 5, 2014

I subscribe to the idea that art, when you care to stop for a second glance or a second listen, should provoke at the very least a reaction, regardless of whether the piece itself is good art or bad art. Of course art is highly subjective, open to interpretations and personal preferences. At its core it should not be nothing. It may be admired, or be entertaining, or be inspiring, or calming, or thought provoking, or frustration, or anger, or that it invokes a memory, but whatever feeling arises, it should not be nothing.

But because art is so personal, it should also be subjected to the fallen-tree-in-the-forest definition. What if it provokes nothing in all people? Then it is not significant, and therefore should not be art.

If a famous painter decides to paint on white canvas a red dot, like a Japanese flag, is it art? Or importantly is it significant? Does it advance the exploration and the experience of art in humanity? Assenters may argue that it takes certain skill to paint with a free hand a perfect, consistent red dot, but I feel it merely demonstrates technical competence.

I see myself getting angry, seeing this red dot painted by this imaginary famous artist. And anger is a reaction, and therefore by my own logic it is art. It may puzzle some other people, seeing this red dot. Again this is a reaction.

But I think it is just one of the definitions of bad art. When art lacks aesthetic value or merit, or too abstract for most to be affected, then it cannot be effective, and fails in its core value.


From their facebook site:
see/saw is the name of a dance piece that was created by the contemporary Japanese dance company Nibroll after the Tsunami earthquake of 2011. It uses an actual see saw on stage as a metaphor to explore different themes and the whole range of powerful emotions evoked in the aftermath of the earthquake. The dancers combine body movements and the up and down motions of the see saw to create moving images that represent the themes of life and death, hope and despair, happiness and sadness, youth and maturity. The combination of the word “see” (to view) in the present tense and “saw” as a past tense also gives rise to different scenes. All this is performed against a spectacular backdrop visual. The music is minimal but no less captivating.

The dance has been performed to sold-out shows and critical acclaim in Japan. This is the first time that Nibroll is performing in Malaysia, and the first time that see/saw is being presented outside of Japan. What is even more exciting is that the company will be auditioning for local dancers to be part of the show.

We start from where you imagine as you go down,
The scene you saw as you went up whilst sitting on the other end,
When the seesaw eventually tips over.
Recall the days to come, describe the days gone by,
Why something was chosen, why something was not,
You ponder, born on one day, dead on another,
Imagine a scene seen at a faraway place that’s not here,
And when asked, “Did you see?” you say “I saw”.

Catch this “physical scenery” of sound, imagery and dancers become one at Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac) at stage 2 on Saturday February 22 at 8:30 pm. The show then moves on to pentas 2 at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre on Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1 at 8:30 pm and on Sunday March 2 at 3:00 pm

Last Sunday I sat through the pain that was Nibroll, a Japanese experimental dance troupe, through a performance called see/saw, which was inspired by and which commemorates the 2011 tsunami. Nibroll was partly sponsored by the Japan Foundation as well as the Japanese Embassy, and had already toured some cities. The 4 key creators(director/choreographer, projectionist, set designer and music director) travelled with the show, together with key actors/dancers. At each location, depending on the venue, the environment, the acoustics etc they would tweak on the formula, improvising on certain components of the piece. They’d hold local auditions for peripheral dancers, some of them amateurs.

I stayed in my seat till the end, holding on to a promise of a question & answer session with the creators. I wanted to get some justification as to why the piece was royally shit. The dances was grating and repetitive, and was too abstract to be contemplative, and the occasional yelps from the dancers highly annoying. The sound effects succeeded in inducing cold sweat and a splitting migraine. If it was all deliberate and meant to provoke and for the audience to run a gamut of raw emotion, I needed to know. Why did they play to sold out shows and critical acclaim in Japan? I was born 80km from the failed nuclear reactor, and I get first hand stories from my relatives who still live there. What did the Japanese public see that I can’t?

Does the perception of art help with retrospection?

After the show and tell, I feel now that it is mandatory to stay and listen, though nothing they said helped change my mind -the performance was still shit. Even with stuttering English, they were able to explain coherently the creative process and explained the reasons why they did what they did. As such, I understood their intent.

If the purpose of the performance is to be able to transfer the sheer agony and horror of those who experienced the tsunami and earthquake, and deliver it within 70 minutes, then this production succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But it is not good art.

Max Klinger

December 30, 2013


Came across a Max Klinger exhibition when I was still a teenager visiting Tokyo.  His etchings have fascinated me since then, possessing at once an ethereal and surrealistic quality, against the backdrop of everyday life.  The first photo insert is a perfect example: what is a scene at a early century skating rink Klinger frozed a moment where we are temporarily disconcerted by the absurdity of the movements of the people in the picture.  This “perfect imbalance” permeates through most of his other works.
15 years on, with the advent of internet technology, and emergence of sites like google, I tried again to revisit this great artist.  A comtemporary of Klimt, with whom he collaborated on some occasions, he was nonetheless driven back into undeserved obscurity.
Klinger made, at his peak a prolific graphic artist and able sculpter, subtle but provoking art.

Aaron, an old friend and ex-laywer-now-poet, invited me to an art benefit, where his ex-lawyer-now-painter wife Namiko also donated 6 of her works. 

Early work

February 5, 2011

Peculiar dogs & their ordinary loves