Melantun Records Pop-Up: Electronic Dreams of Tsao Chieh(Chee-Wai Yuen & Ujikaji)

2020.10.27

Melantun Records ,Mixed-media Installation, Texts, Prints, Audio and Video Documents , 2017  Exhibition view © Chee-Wai Yuen

Melantun Records was an artwork installed at a vacant unit of a Singapore shopping centre in 2017. Set up to look and feel like a record shop, the artwork allowed the audience to enter a place where the past, present and future of underground music culture in Singapore seemed to converge, through displays of historically seminal albums and gig posters, the organising of in-store gigs to facilitate the direct transmission of a musician’s creative impulse to an audience, and the careful insertion of speculative elements such as the creation of album artwork from imagined futures. As an artwork, Melantun posited the space of the record store as cultural and intellectual economy, facilitating subcultural knowledge production and exchange.

Melantun Records Pop-Up: Electronic Dreams of Tsao Chieh finds the beloved record store reviving the story of forgotten Singaporean polymath, Tsao Chieh (1953–1996). Tsao was an engineer with a distinguished career in the military but who also established himself as a composer, especially of Romantic and Postmodern orchestral works. Sent overseas by the military to study engineering in England and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Tsao took the opportunity to pursue his musical passions, taking extra classes in music (a subject not offered by local universities in Singapore back then). By the time he graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a PhD in electrical engineering, he had somehow also found the time to obtain master degrees in music composition and mathematics.

On his return to Singapore, Tsao began to establish himself as a promising composer, writing works such as the ambitious Singapore, Symphonic Suite for Large Orchestra, a 40-minute work in five movements. The piece was performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Singapore Arts Festival in 1986, which contributed to his national recognition as Outstanding Young Person of the Year that same year. What is perhaps less known is his pioneering work in electronic and computer music in Singapore. His stint at Stanford in the early 1980s had exposed him to the work of the Centre for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and he had used the MS software created by Stanford’s Professor Leland Smith to write his compositions. In the early 1990s, Tsao created works for synthesisers and also used Kyma, a programming language for computer music, to compose a handful of computer music pieces. Unfortunately, he did not have much time to explore these new technologies, as he fell sick and soon passed on from liver cancer at the age of 42. In fact, shortly before he was too sick to work, he had conceived of writing an opera based on the myth of Bukit Merah in Singapore, which would combine his love of orchestral music and the new sounds he could create using the computer. We can only imagine how this might have sounded.

“Of all the different artists, it is quite terrible to be a composer, because your dream has to be realised by other people.” ─Tsao Chieh

The artwork will present the life and works of Tsao Chieh from the angle of his work as an electronic and computer music pioneer in Singapore. Besides an original mindmap of Tsao’s life and work, there are also reproductions of his scores, interviews with his widow and colleagues, and newly commissioned remixes of his work by different generations of Singaporean or Singapore-based musicians.

Curator: Chee-Wai Yuen(Singapore)

Chee-Wai Yuen is a musician, artist, designer and curator based in Singapore. Born in 1975. Often inspired by ideas drawn from philosophical and literary texts, and perspectives glimpsed through the filmic eye and photographic lens, Yuen’s stylistic oeuvre in improvised music is marked by internalised reflections on memory and loss, invisibility and indeterminacy. 

In 2008, he teamed with Otomo Yoshihide (Japan), Ryu Hankil (South Korea), and Yan Jun (China) to form the improvised music quartet, FEN (Far East Network). FEN focuses on the continuing multifaceted networks and collaborations between Asian countries. Since its inception in 2014, Yuen is part of Ensembles Asia as Project Director for Asian Music Network, to which he co-curates the annual Asian Meeting Festival (AMF) with dj sniff in Japan. 

He is also a member of the avant-rock band The Observatory (Singapore), with whom he plays guitar, synth and electronics. With thirteen albums to date, with the most recent being a release of a collaboration with Haino Keiji named Authority is Alive (2020). The Observatory has also conceived a vanguard of initiatives such as the annual festival Playfreely, which gives artists new creative avenues for performing and working together. Through Playfreely, he is also the co-curator of Nusasonic, a multi-year project that plunges into a broad spectrum of experimental sound and music cultures in Southeast Asia, enabling dialogue within the region, with Europe, and beyond. 

He continues to tour extensively with FEN and The Observatory, performing in Europe, America and Asia regularly, and has presented in MIMI Festival, Lausanne Underground Music and Film Festival, All Ears Festival, Ftarri Festival, Gwangju Biennale and CTM Festival.

Artist: Ujikaji

Ujikaji is a curatorial project in the form of an experimental music label, mail order and event organiser. Its key interest is in bringing to fore sounds and sound cultures which may be marginal, ignored or forgotten. Recent music releases on vinyl, cassette and digital include albums by FEN, Pupa, The Observatory and Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. Ujikaji co-presents the acclaimed BlackKaji series of experimental sound events, which is equally comfortable with holding intimate studio gigs as it is staging mid-size festivals.