Bringing words to life with sound

Ng Sze Min (far left) with the co-founder of Artwave Studio, Pan Zai'en, at the "Say What Ah" exhibition at The Arts House.
Ng Sze Min (far left) with the co-founder of Artwave Studio, Pan Zai'en, at the "Say What Ah" exhibition at The Arts House.PHOTO: ARTWAVE STUDIO

The gentle sounds of gates opening, footsteps on gravel and plants being watered may not even register to most listeners.

To sound artist Ng Sze Min, though, these sounds are as essential as visuals in setting a scene and telling stories.

The 26-year-old alumnus of the University of Melbourne is the co-founder of Artwave Studio, which aims to re-envision engagement with the arts and businesses through music and sound.

Two of her works were recently part of the annual #BuySingLit festival, which celebrates and draws attention to local literature.

She collaborated with Our Monster Tongues to set up the exhibition "Say What Ah" at The Arts House, in which people working in the publishing sector read Singaporean poetry out loud.

Their recorded voices were played aloud in the exhibition, which was decorated with dynamically suspended sheets of paper.

Apart from drawing attention to local literature, the work aimed to celebrate the people working behind the scenes to bring these stories to local audiences and to make their voices heard.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Ng said sound has the potential to evoke a sense of familiarity in the reader.

SingLit texts, in particular, are meant to be read out loud to achieve their full effect.

Ng finds it fascinating to hear how comfortable and natural Singaporeans sound when speaking Singlish.

"I did a test on my Singaporean friend who grew up in Australia and has an Australian accent, in which I made her read Bang My Car by Ann Ang, a collection of Singaporean poetry. Her inner Singlish immediately made an appearance," she said with a laugh.

To her, sound does what text alone is unable to do. "It makes the text feel more three-dimensional rather than just being words on a page and it allows audiences to completely immerse themselves in the work of literature."

Ng's other work featured in #BuySingLit is Poems On Air, a digital collection of re-imagined Singaporean poems. The recordings can be accessed on Artwave Studio's website.

The work creatively interprets Singaporean poems by giving them aural qualities.

For example, the Tamil poem Urban Riches by local poet Amiroudine, which deals with themes such as urbanisation and the loss of village culture, is recorded spoken out loud and then superimposed with sounds that are reminiscent of a quiet life in the village.

In the recording's second half, the soft clucking of chickens and the distant barking of dogs is replaced with the discordant sounds of traffic.

"The sounds add atmosphere to the poem, which is essential in the business of storytelling," she said.

When asked what she hoped the future of art in Singapore would be like, Ng expressed her desire for greater collaboration between art and other fields.

"Art has the potential to dig into difficult subjects and issues in society, and integrating arts into industries like healthcare can be incredibly beneficial for the community. The arts should not be seen as a stand-alone industry."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2020, with the headline 'Bringing words to life with sound'. Subscribe