Posted on September 25 2018
"I didn't choose music. I found music and music chose me." – Darren Ng
Recently we interviewed composer and sound designer Darren Ng. Most of us might know him for his work in sound design for the theatre, or for his music under his moniker, sonicbrat.
Hi Darren, tell us more about yourself!
Hi I’m Darren Ng, I compose music and sound design for theatre, film, animation, and contemporary dance, as well as produce my own music under the moniker sonicbrat. As sonicbrat I’m signed to music label Kitchen. Label and am also represented by Phantom Limb. I also do sound art and sound installations and am one of the co-founders of design collective – INDEX. I am fortunate to be an associate sound artist and music composer for The Finger Players as well as an associate artist with Emergency Stairs.
That’s interesting! Please tell us more about the work you do with your collective, INDEX.
My most recent installation with INDEX – ‘The Room that Grew Bouyant, Little by Little’, was a site-specific installation held in the spaces of Centre 42 earlier this year in March. The installation invites visitors to (re)discover the spaces in Centre 42 for themselves through our installation, thereby inserting their own narratives. We are rather “low-profile” when it comes to our work, as we believe our work is about the people when they visit and not about us as artists. A lot of our installations are about having a dialogue in and with the space, where chance and liminality play a big part in informing our process. We don’t like to force our art to happen, they happen out of necessity and chance and not by obligation.
You’re known for doing a lot of things with your music, including make your instruments. Tell us more about your journey in music-making and how the name sonicbrat came about.
I do not see sound and music as separate entities, and this allows my composition to traverse between using conventional instruments and finding sounds from the environment be it field recordings, object sampling, programming or making my own electro-acoustic instruments to create new sonic palettes. I enjoy toying around with contact microphones, tactile transducers and programming to stretch the possibilities of sound making, mismatching unusual tools with conventional instruments to create new sonic textures. I like to challenge my process and limit myself so that I don’t feel too comfortable or complacent. As such, making new instruments (see image below, DIY instruments for The Finger Players' 'Citizen Dog') and putting myself in a position to learn to make music or sounds with these new instruments come naturally for me and it pushes my own boundaries as I have to unlearn and learn constantly during my process. It keeps my exploration fresh.
How I got my moniker sonicbrat was rather candid. In the early 2000s I used to do sound art dabbling in noise, ambient and music that was more on the avant-garde and experimental side. Back then I did a sound art performance at The Substation – it was probably 2003. I was sitting with a friend and we were just talking about my work. Then she suggested that I should have a moniker and even though we were just joking about it, sonicbrat just came about conveniently. I may have grown out of it now, but it seems the name has become part of me. I produce my own music under my moniker sonicbrat after that, first on Myspace and then under a few labels in Europe and Japan until recent years with Kitchen. Label.
When people ask what kind of music I do, I cannot give a definite answer. I find that exploring music and sound is a journey and it is dependent on what I am exploring at the moment. I do have phases. I started with acoustic (piano), then moved on to noise and ambient, to psychoacoustics, and then going into synthesis and programming, followed by electro-acoustic music, minimalism, DIY synthesizer and DIY acoustic instruments, and finally back to acoustic again, and it doesn’t end here. They are not definite phases but movements in my explorations. These informed my journey and my researches and ultimately define my sound and who I am today as an artist. I do not drop one to move on to another – they have been accumulative over the past two decades. They are not strictly limited to music and sound either as I see art as a whole and not divorced from other forms. You can see it’s in constant flux, so it’s very hard for me to put my work in boxes.
How did you start out doing music? When did you realise you wanted to do it as a career?
I was in touch with amateur theatre from the age of 9 by a twist of fate and have been in love with it since. I knew I wanted to do theatre/arts for life from a very young age. Since I was trained classically in piano and was already composing music on the side, it kind of fell into place naturally for me to compose music and sound design for theatre, though the latter grew out of necessity along the way.
I’ve actually been composing music since I was eight, but it was more for fun and out of interest. But when I got serious, there were no said job specifically for theatre back in the 90s and I thought maybe I could carve myself a career doing music for the theatre. It was a very young and bleak industry back then, because in those days there wasn’t an actual scene for music for theatre. Of course, there were artists or directors who would reach out to collaborate with musicians, but there wasn’t a specific role in theatre for music and sound design. Even where sound was concerned people usually approached from a solely technical point of view, and directors were used to picking existing music off the shelves. So I thought I could offer to compose music for theatre, customising and “tailoring” music for the productions’ needs. As there were no protocols, infrastructures, understanding or even a “need” for my services back then, I had to offer my services for free just for them to test it out. I did it for about 3 years before I was finally offered my first paid job when I was 19 years old. By then, I was already doing sound design on top of providing music, as I had figured out I needed to cover that to provide a more holistic experience for the audience.
And that was also when you started doing sound design on top of writing music?
Yes. I realised then that I also had to start venturing into sound design. There was a misconception that sound design is just doing practical “sound effects” like door knocks and phone rings for example, but it’s more than that. It’s a bit like underscoring for film – only it’s for theatre and using sounds. It’s about creating context, mood, tensions, emotions, narrative arcs and more, by employing soundscapes, ambient, and a lot of subliminal sounds and locational sounds to create a pseudo-reality for the audience. On top of that, sound design also entails designing the sound system in the theatre with relevance to the acoustics and architectural elements. Each show is unique and requires a different ambience, sound context and reality. So in terms of sound design, I have to consider – how can I create the right atmosphere with all its necessary nuances not just on an auditory level but in an immersive 3D space?
So I started doing sound design out of necessity and by way of discovery, and things just fell into place as I learn along the way. But it was so hard back when I started, because there was no actual industry for creative sound design at all. Even if there was, it was very restrictive and very misconstrued. The hardest part was spending a period of 10 to 15 years where I had to fight for time during production bump-ins to do technical set-up, sound checks, system balancing, microphones equalization, quiet time, etc. Back then, sound was mostly overlooked and not allotted enough time in the schedule. I had to squeeze whatever time I had to do my thing. I had to fight for time with other departments (deemed more important than sound), and during lunch or dinner breaks when actors and the rest of the creative team were absent to do all the necessary checks.
But fortunately as time goes by, things slowly changed for the better and when Esplanade opened, I made it a point to set examples for future protocols through my practice by doing all the necessary paperwork like system plans and signal flows, and also demanding time for quiet time and advocate proper and reasonable time allocation for set-up.
Why music specifically — what does it do for you or to you or what do you think it lets you express to others?
We all have the desire to express ourselves, and music just happens to be one of the outlets I find most comfortable as a mode of expression, amongst other things I like, like writing and drawing. People ask why I choose music, but I didn't choose music. I found music and music chose me. Even after doing music for so many years I feel I have so much to learn from it, and I don’t only mean in terms of its technicality, but what it offers philosophically.
I believe that creating art is a lot more of a synergic process than an independent one. If you look at different art movements throughout history, the music of the time reflects, responds, and partakes in these movements and processes of social and political change down the ages as well. You can learn so much about different modes of expression, how it affects life, how it feeds and reflects different mental states, and how it affects certain lifestyles.
On a more metaphyscial side of things, because music informs your lifestyle it no longer can be seen as a mere medium - the instruments you use and how you create reflects your philosophy. It affects the way you think, the way you look at life and these creates a liminal connection between you and your expression. You don't play music, you let the music play you. And I think this applies to not just music but everything else. It’s a relationship between an artist and his work that is a lot more complex and intimate.
Could you roughly describe your process doing sound design for a theatre production? For example, do you approach the production by means of the script first?
I’ll usually start from the script. I’ll read it and first understand the style it is in – is it realistic (Stanislavsky)? is it abstract (Brechtian, etc), or is it something else? Then I’ll have to identify the geographical/architectural (where) and historical (when) context of the play. If a play is set in London during a certain time period, how do I create the right sound textures to suggest that reality? If it is set in an old wooden house aged by time located in a rural area, the sound of the doors and building structure, flow of electricity and the exterior sounds would then be informed and reimagined through design. Is it outdoors or indoors, morning or night? Sound informs these contexts. After those are decided, I would have to look at the mood and narrative arc of the show and consider the artistic direction the director wants. How do I use sound design to drive the mood, keep pace and draw the dynamics of the play. How do I manipulate the audience through sounds to suspend their beliefs, to feel tension or relaxed at certain parts of the play, to “not notice” the sound design. I would also have to determine where music comes in and out, and of course what kind of “music” – in-your-face or subtle? What genre or style?
After that, going into rehearsals to get a feel of the flow and energy of the piece is important as the design and compositions need to be aligned with the energy of the play. Over time as a work in progress, I will start bringing in the designs and music to work with the actors as all these elements come together bit by bit until we hit the theatre. Of course a devised play with no script will require a different workflow.
Do you then sit in for rehearsals? At which point will you be scheduled to work with the creative team and cast members?
I’ve worked with different directors for different groups, and they all have different ways of working with sound design. Some directors prefer to start with just the cast and get the blocking down first, so I’m not required to come in too early in the rehearsal process until there is at least a skeletal sketch. In other scenarios where directors prefer a more collaborative process, I come in from day one and work as part of the process to conceptualise and implement my sounds earlier into rehearsals.
Normally, creating sound and music is a very time consuming process. We need to compose, arrange, play, record, mix and master the music (and that’s only for one track). The same goes for designing sounds as they need to be customised for the show. So it is a race against time and a very intensive process to compose music and sound design for an entire play with many pieces of music and layers of sounds – an ongoing process where we need time on our side. Usually I would communicate with the director prior and during rehearsals on ideas – his directorial vision and my sound concepts, to ensure that we are always on the same page for smoother integration. I work best when there is mutual trust and respect in the process.
And even though it’s often overlooked, sound design is so important in a production.
Yes it is, as a holistic experience cannot be devoid of hearing. Take silence, for example. Silence in the theatre should be earned and not there because there are “no design”. Ambient sounds populate our silences in real life. You can also have ‘fake silences’ in the theatre, which I create using subliminal frequencies (low or high frequencies) that comes in without being noticed thus creating tension. I can also release these tensions at the right time to create a sense of relief. This is what we call psychoacoustics. Through sound, I can also control the weather, the mood, emotions, energy, the density and much more. Making a doorbell ring and having that sound come from the door itself requires planning and technical set-up. In a scene in which a bomb goes off I can vibrate the seats in a tactile and physical manner so the sounds are not just heard but felt, the aftermath of the blast can then be felt rippling through the audience from the stage, complimenting what they hear and see. Thus, creating a realistic and immersive experience.
To me sound is spatial. When it comes to theatre, I’ll have to examine the resources and architectural qualities the inherent in the space, and consider how sound can permeate this space, how it can resonate and affect listeners. The system design has to take all these into considerations. With the spatial concept in mind, the hardest part is usually convincing the director to trust me with what I’m doing during rehearsals, especially since I can’t do a full technical set-up until we hit the theatre.
So you also manually do your own set-ups of speakers during bump-in?
I have the help of my technicians. As a sound designer you have to oversee the installation of the system according to your system design plan. So it’s not just designing the content and coming up with the music, but also designing the right system for your design, set-up technically, balancing the system, map the sounds in space through sound plotting, before we can start a technical run in the theatre. It is not just playing back from two speakers stereophonically, but a complex mix of multiple layers of sound design through a number of speakers to achieve the right spatial image of sound in space.
And your speakers are all over the theatre space?
It depends on what you want to achieve as a space is 3-dimensional. For example, if I put two speakers along a particular horizontal plane, it covers a certain panoramic field between your left and right perception. But to cover the entire theatre or to map the sounds in 3-dimensional space, more speakers have to be employed. Based on the placement of speakers, I can create depth and perceptive distances (inside, outside, far, near, etc.), place sounds in a particular spot, or create movements of sounds. This is to accommodate all the sound cues during a production. In my designs I can have around 3000 cues happening through the show, which is a lot, but the important thing for me is that these sound layers and effects should be so subtle, effortless and believable that the audience hardly notice them and they should in fact take them for granted.
What inspires you and what is your creative process for the various works you do?
My process of making music as sonicbrat is just like painting - there’s no ‘romance’ or anything to it. But personally a lot of my creations come from solitude. I enjoy being alone and thinking about things or being in the moment. For example, my previous album, Murmurations, was created because at the time I was very obsessed with the migration of starlings and bird songs. So I watched a lot of documentaries on that, and that’s a running theme throughout the album – a longing to roam and travel. That album took me about two to three years to put together. The one before that, titled Stranger To My Room, came about because although I’ve been living in my previous house for the past 13 years, there were times I still felt like a stranger.
My work is quite heavily grounded in obsessions, stillness and quietness. Some of my solo installation works usually stem from something I was obsessed with in that particular moment in life. But when it comes to INDEX’s installations, we don't like to tell people what the piece means as we belief the work is bigger than oneself. To me the piece or installations doesn’t always have to be what the artist wants to convey. Sometimes it can just be about the visitors that come, about the people who experience it, and not the artist. I feel a lot of art installations these days are merely about self-expression - what the artist wants, what the visitors should take from the experience. But if you do that then you start to create a certain demographic of visitors, and if it is about something that people should or shouldn’t get from an installation you start to have people who think that they aren't smart enough to understand art when they don’t get a particular message.
What was the most memorable or most enjoyable you’ve worked on in terms of sound designing?
Every show is memorable or at least, that’s because I make an effort to make sure it’s memorable and worthwhile for myself. But a poignant point in my career, and I don’t mean this in terms of what people usually define as ‘success’, was when I did a show in 2007. It was called '0501', produced by The Finger Players, and this was a piece we created in the span of a year.
It was poignant because it informed and confirmed certain beliefs in my art making. The rehearsal process was an immensely creative one. We had different artists of various disciplines involved. We got to lead own workshops and shared our philosophy and beliefs in our crafts. This process of collaboration taught me that theatre (or art) is not about proving yourself - it’s really about enjoying the process and learning from it. At the end of the day you realise that the means is more important than the end in itself. Nowadays, a lot of people put dollar signs to the end product, and a lot of young people are in an industry that is so monetised. It’s hard to really enjoy yourself when that happens. That said, collaboration is just one thing. Enjoyment is another. I believe you have to enjoy doing what you do. That’s also why I am more selective now with what I do and what I want to do.
Is there a something you’ve always wanted to do but never got the chance to?
In terms of sound and music, I would like to create with no bounds. I want to create freely without worrying about anything. Of course in reality, it is a lot more complex and you have to make the best out of it. I honestly don't think I can get to that idealistic state but I think it would be nice to try, to be allowed to create selfishly sometimes – to create for myself. Once in a while, I don't want to have to answer to other people. But of course, I say all this with all due respect to the dynamics of working with others and the strength that I know comes with collaboration.
And if I don't do sound, if I hadn't come into contact with music or in another life, I’d want to be a contemporary dancer or maybe a chef. But also under the notion of being able to do all these things freely. I suppose I’m just idealistically stubborn that way haha.
What are you working on currently / next?
I’ll be working on sound design and music for an animation by Tan Wei Keong, I’m also composing music for a Japanese art film, and doing sound installation for Both Sides Now. Right now I’m also preparing for a solo sound installation in January 2019 and Hua Yi 2019.
Interviewed by: Cheryl Tan, September 2018