Since 2020, the Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) has been releasing a monthly series for our Musings section, Composer of the Month! The Member of the Month for Oct 2023 is Joseph THAM. He is an educator and independent researcher specializing in Singapore's avant-garde 'pop' music scene. Previously, he was part of local experimental band I/D, and used to co-run the record shop Flux US from 2005-2007.
Interviewer: NG Yu Hng
Tell us about yourself, your musical background and what you currently do.
For my day job, I am an educator. I personally don’t play any instrument in the traditional sense of the word. The closest I can describe myself of my non-ability would be music arch-conceptualist, Brian Eno’s term, a non-musician. I dabbled in improvisation in the past and was in a local experimental band, I/D, for a while. I used to co-run a record shop with a friend, called Flux Us back in 2005-2007 but the timing was totally wrong as it was the peak of downloading and we were forced to close it down. I gradually switched over to music history writing and criticism subsequently.
Thank you for accepting our invitation to share your research during our last Say Say Borak session, could you tell us a bit about your research interest in the avant-garde pop scene in Singapore? What are some interesting developments in this area?
My interest started when I was an observer of the local independent music scene since the late 1980s which coupled with the only local music magazine, BigO, started my journey. However as my musical taste moved more toward a more experimental, avant-garde slant, my attention shifted. I would say I have always preferred the more alternative and heavy sounds in pop and rock even when I was a teenager. In my opinion, the local avant-garde scene has always taken its many cues from overseas development and the artists then tried to add their own individual twist to their creation and conception of their work. As an observable phenomenon, no matter how small it was/is, I would say 2000s would be a good starting point. Interestingly, many of them are actually my friends who also started getting into more avant-garde and experimental musics since the late 1990s. Aside from more rock-based sounds from The Observatory to the more electronic sounds of George Chua, you need to include fields such as field recordings, noise, sound art, post rock, electronica, etc.
In recent years, there is a drive to create a Singaporean musical identity, broadly we can conceive this of as a 'Singapore Sound'. What is your perspective on this, and how do you think this unique ecosystem of avant-garde popular music in Singapore can contribute to our local culture?
Haha, can someone please tell me what is a Singapore Sound? Ethnic music hybrid or use of Singlish? I don’t think we should consciously tell ourselves we need to or I want to create a Singapore Sound. Instead, we should just create and make music. The outcome might or might not be ‘Singaporean’ but as long as it is true to your creative spirit, to me, that is good enough. In fact, I would say diversity is better than having a so-called uniform or identifiable sound across the artists. The avant-garde music scene locally has already started collaborating or coming together with other Southeast Asian counterparts since, I would say, the mid 2000s and they have been noticed by some overseas observers, critics and press like the UK music magazine, The Wire. I wish more would be featured but I guess good enough for now. I would say that our Indonesian friends are doing a bit better than us, artists like Senyawa and Gabber Modus Operandi. The two groups I mentioned really sound unique and fresh. Any so-called Indonesian elements one can discern, sound natural and unforced. We should aim for that.
The last time we met, you mentioned the budding discourse of Singapore Studies, could you tell us more about this, and how your musical research intersects with this growing field of knowledge?
I can only share with you the website, www.s-pores.com. It was started by a group of local academics and non-academics back in 2007. Some of its founding members were Hong Lysa, Kwee Hui Kian, Lim Cheng Tju, Francis Lim Khek Gee, Sai Siew Min, and Teng Siao See. You might recognise some of them. I have to say the site has published 21 issues online since then and the themes for them range from politics to pedagogy to history and to popular culture. A rich source of articles if one is keen to deep dive into the so-called field of Singapore Studies.