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[Festival Review] CHOPPA’s got wicked chops

By Kareyst Lin and Miranda Chan 

Humans are undeniably creatures of habit – we find comfort in familiarity, in returning home after a long tiring day for instance, with the knowledge that that place is one we can count on; we find comfort in simply knowing, we fear what we don’t know.

Mainstream culture perpetuates this.

Commercial music, blockbusters films and soap operas are written from the same fixed structure. If you notice, it’s just the details that have been changed. But still, it sells. And that’s partly because we’re so conditioned to comfort in this sanitary first world environment, such that anything out of the ordinary causes discomfort and dissonance. So we seek comfort in the norm, and clichés – the semi tonal up-key in the final chorus of a pop song, the fairy tale wedding, the triumph of good over evil – help us to manage the challenges of life and well, reality.

So music, and for that matter, all other forms of entertainment, now have to be “easy” enough for the mass audience, to increase acceptance and appreciation of the product or artist. This creates the impression that we’re in control, that customers prescribe the entertainment we want to receive. When in fact, it’s the other way around: producers, through expertise or experience, are often the ones doing the framing – the scenes, the plot patterns and chord progressions, that dictate our reactions, and in turn, consumer behaviour. The truth is, we’re not required to think much.

But every society has its subcultures, and this is one that has settled quietly in a comfortable spot on the fringes of our cultural spectrum but has remained an active scene within itself. And its followers relish in this space that exists way apart from the mainstream; it gives differentiation, a sense of distinction.

So while Laneway Festival 2015 comes under fire for not being the indie music festival any longer due to a large turnout, die-hard music lovers found another calling at LASALLE College of the Arts, in the annual CHOPPA Experimental Music Festival, which spanned three days from 22 to 24 January 2015.

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Organised by the School of Contemporary Music at LASALLE, this festival explores experimental and avant-garde soundscape at its cutting edge.

Artistic director Darren Moore is an Australian drummer, electronic musician and educator currently based in Singapore. And for the past few years, he had been a driving force in the jazz and experimental music scenes, performing regularly and organising events like CHOPPA and the Singapore leg of the Australian sound art festival Liquid Architecture.

Yong Yandsen and Takaoka Daisuke played together in a saxophone-tuba combination, in which they tried to challenge the number of ways that these two instruments can be played. Yong is an experimental and free jazz musician from Kuala Lumpur and his melodic lines (he does once in a while play his saxophone in a conventional way somewhere in the set) had a lyrical touch to it. Takaoka, born in Osaka and based in Tokyo, focuses on improvisation and his performance typically incorporates a wider than normal range of playing methods and unusual extended techniques, for example, using metal plates to cover the opening of the tuba in different ways to achieve different timbre.

Clayton Thomas, an Australian double bassist, incorporates a strong rhythmic dimension to his performance and makes use of the amplification from the pickups on his bass to achieve unexpected sounds, which made his set so unpredictable and delightful to watch.

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The set by Game of Patience featured Yong on the saxophone, Brian O’Reilly on acoustic bass and electronics and Moore on drums. Together, they combined elements of free jazz, electronic music and free improv. It might have been unintentional but their eccentric piece (by mainstream standards) had our minds tuned to pick up any sound from the surroundings, and to take those sounds as part of the piece.

It’s hard to paint a concise picture of exactly what experimental music is, because that is the whole point of it. The genre, or rather the lack of defining genre, creates the music it identifies with. Go figure.

Okay, we hear the protests, “How can that kind of noise be music??”

So this question takes us back to our point, that we define things according to what we know. Music is music, it shouldn’t be noise and noise isn’t music. It’s only human to acknowledge only what we know and ignore what we can’t classify or put in a box. So, this means that our stubbornly conditioned ears will often classify anything new in music as “noise”, but music was never a closed space, for its definition is “organised sound”, according to Varése and Chou in a study done in 1966.

That is why CHOPPA was definitely an eye-opener for both the first-time experimental music listeners and lovers alike, as each performance was something that tore apart our pre-conceived notions of music, over and over again. More than simply pushing boundaries, experimental music contests the hegemony of homogenization in music.

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But music aside, the musicians were brilliant performers. Their expressions and manipulation of instruments (that would have been blasphemy) had us floored most of the time. It helped that the performing space was intimate and dimly-lit; we were literally a metre or two away from the performers. Because silence was a part of the soundscapes, we were extraordinarily aware of sounds that we’re conditioned to ignore – the clicking of camera shutters, fabric brushing against skin, our own breath. There was no right or wrong, or differentiation between sound or noise or music.

The trippy part of the experience is that your mind will wander as the sounds wash over you, and you’ll picture that band or musician or instrument taking the stage – in colour.

That is perhaps what is missing when we limit ourselves to the commercial music constructs. We feel the angst of metal and rock, we weep at sappy love songs. We know these feelings because we have been conditioned to act and feel a certain way, but experimental music is uncharted grounds that does offer an indescribable experience. Let’s be clear though, we’re not saying to do away with “normal” music entirely or that we understand exactly each piece or that we’re huge fans of this un-limiting genre. It’s weird, no doubt, but we think, let’s give experimental music a chance. Keep an open mind, take it as an experience (not a gig) and you might be surprised at what you’ll get from that.

Image credits: CHOPPA Experimental Music Festival

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