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An Interview with Song-Ming Ang, Singapore’s Representative at the 58th Venice Biennale


An Interview with Song-Ming Ang, Singapore’s Representative at the 58th Venice Biennale
Song-Ming Ang at the filming of Recorder Rewrite

At the point of this interview with Song-Ming Ang, he as well as the artistic team behind the Singapore Pavilion are gearing towards the opening of the Venice Biennale. Last night, the Singapore Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale was officially opened by Guest-of-Honour Mr. Baey Yam Keng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Transport at the Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale in Venice. The air in Venice is no doubt buzzing with excitement as 91 countries come together for what is known as the “Olympics of the art world”, showcasing their respective artists and creations on an international platform. 

Ang’s multidisciplinary presentation, ‘Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme', explores the myriad of ways people relate to music, on a personal and societal level, and how music can affect a sense of agency. It takes reference from a series of music concerts, titled 'Music for Everyone', organized in the 1970s by then-Ministry of Culture of Singapore, to promote Western classical music education and appreciation, and to foster a sense of national identity. Five works make up this presentation that includes a three-channel video installation featuring Singaporean children improvising with the recorder, textile banners inspired by original posters of ‘Music for Everyone’ in the 70s, a series of watercolour paintings from music competitions, paper collages that utilise music manuscripts and sculptures of recorders that have been reassembled into new, whimsical forms. 

The Artling caught up with Ang ahead of the opening of the Singapore Pavilion bringing you these first highlights of the space and his works. We found out more about how he arrived at his concepts, the most challenging part of this presentation, and what he’d like his international audience to take away from ‘Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme' :  

Congratulations once again for being named Singapore’s representative at the biggest art event in the world! What was your initial reaction to finding out that you would be having a solo presentation at the Singapore Pavilion?

Very surprised and honored. All the other artists and curators would have been excellent choices too, so I think we were very lucky.


We last spoke in July of 2018 when this announcement was first made. What has your journey towards this Venice Biennale been like since then?

Some sleepless nights and a lot more grey hair. Hopefully, they’ll be worth it.

Song-Ming Ang, Recorder Rewrite, 2019. Film still courtesy of the artist.

'Recorder Rewrite' film at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist.

Your presentation, ‘Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme’, explores the effects of music and the ways in which society and its individuals all relate to it, all in coherence with Singapore’s national identity. Could you walk us through how you arrived at this concept?

In Singapore, we inherited the recorder as part of our music education due to the legacy of British colonialism. However, the instrument actually found its way into many non-European countries like Japan and the United States. The recorder regained popularity in the 20th century as it was seen by educators as a suitable instrument for children – it’s portable, affordable, sturdy, and you don’t have to tune it. But if we look beyond the instrument’s history, what we see is that many people around the world actually share a common experience through it. 

This is basically the motivation of the film – evoke an experience that is known to many of us, but at the same time to create a feeling that feels foreign. Ideally, the audience should walk away feeling excited, thinking “ah, I didn’t know you could do that with the recorder!” It’s an instrument that can be quite divisive because not all of us who learned it actually enjoyed learning it. It’s about finding the right entry point and offering an alternative perspective for my audience so that they can understand the instrument in a new way. 

With all the artworks, my motivation is to think about what it means to make ‘music for everyone’ – how to be inclusive and open. I think that any person or organization in a position to think about this question is already in a position of power or privilege, to decide what ‘music’ is and who ‘everyone’ is. I hope that the spirit of the artworks reflects this awareness.


Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist.

Your oeuvre spans various mediums and is constantly motivated by music. ’You and I’ and ‘Guilty Pleasures’ are a couple of examples where your practice is catered towards and driven by audience engagement. How is engagement and collaboration present in ‘Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme’?

For me, working with the public or the audience enables unexpected outcomes to be generated in my work. It probably stems from my interest in avant-garde music, in which chance operations and improvisation can feature heavily. Also, I think that working together with the audience can be challenging and rewarding for both parties. I like the fact that participants can customize their experiences for themselves in some of my works. 

There is definitely a focus on amateurism and the every day, in the sense that all the works employ very simple techniques or materials that are familiar to us. For a start, Recorder Rewrite is based on an instrument that’s easily recognizable and performed by a group of 20 children. Also, working with children means that we have to adapt to them. As an artist, I often work within limitations that I’ve set out for myself, and the film is definitely a manifestation of that. 

When we were looking for children participants for Recorder Rewrite, we didn’t specify musical proficiency as a requirement, only that they could attend all five consecutive days of the project. We started with a two-day music workshop for them, first to impart creative techniques of playing the recorder, and then improvisation exercises to help them compose a piece of their own. Then there was another day of choreographic rehearsal before we shot the film over two days. It was a big risk actually. Given how improvised the whole thing was, it was often difficult for my crew to know exactly what to expect, but they were really great and the children were fantastic too. I felt really inspired by everyone’s commitment and performance. 

Music Manuscripts and Recorder Sculptures both continue in the same spirit, but with two and three-dimensional media. The former utilizes cutting, folding, pasting and collaging – very basic techniques of working with paper to create compositions, while the latter consists simply of recorders disassembled and re-stacked into new forms while observing the law of gravity. 

'Our Songs' watercolour paintings at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist.

Recorder Sculptures at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist.

What has been the most challenging part of creating this multidisciplinary presentation at the Venice Biennale?

Offering my collaborators the freedom and autonomy to contribute meaningfully to the project while trying to maintain my vision for the presentation.


Is there anything in particular that you’d like your audience to take away from your presentation?

One of my main motivations for making Recorder Rewrite, the main work of the exhibition, is that because the recorder has this rather unhip reputation for many of us who learned it when we were younger. So I wanted to rehabilitate the instrument in a way. It would be nice if the audience could come away thinking, “Oh I didn’t know you can do that with the recorder!” and for them to experience a feeling of joy or a sense of discovery after watching it. 

Apart from that, I think the whole show is really about formulating an alternative vision for Music for Everyone, something that feels more ‘ground up’ than ‘top-down’, and is based on egalitarianism and improvisation. It’d be great too if visitors would leave the show thinking, “Oh I could do that too”. Sometimes art that appears simple or amateurish gets dismissed for looking untechnical, so if visitors feel that they could do it too, I’d take it as a compliment because it probably means that they feel empowered by the works. 

'Music Manuscripts' at the Singapore Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2019. Photo by Olivia Kwok, courtesy of the artist.

Whilst I’m sure you’re knee deep and completely focused on Biennale antics, have you thought about what’s next? 

I’ll be participating in the upcoming Children’s Biennale: Embracing Wonder at the National Gallery of Singapore, opening 25 May. I’ll also be participating in the 4th Aichi Triennale in Japan, as well as a group show Space is the Place at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, both opening 1 August. In between, I’d like to find some time to take a break as I’ve been working non-stop for the past year. 



‘Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme’ will be on show at the Venice Biennale from May 11th to November 24th, 2019. 

The Singapore Pavilion is located at the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi building. 

To find out more about the 58th Venice Biennale, click here.

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