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On the Experimental Path in Kuala Lumpur

Updated: Aug 19


Kok Siew-Wai

August 2020

Kuala Lumpur in the mid to late 1990s saw a group of young people passionate in the DIY spirit organise into collectives, set up art spaces and put on underground events. Alternative, indie, punk, rock and folk music became popular among youngsters with some of them publishing zines, setting up own studios and organising gigs at their studios. These indie scene musicians from the 90s formed the initial group of KLites that would venture into a very different kind of music in the upcoming century.  

Early Days 

The EMACM collective (Experimental Artists and Musicians Cooperative Malaysia) formed in the early 2000s. The founding members included Yeoh Yin-Pin, Yong Yandsen, Goh Lee-Kwang, Azmyl Yunor, Aziz, Tham Kar-Mun and Ronnie Khoo. The collective put on small gigs, founded a label named Xing Wu (醒悟) (meaning “coming to realisation”) and released a compilation album. The album includes tracks by its members and international artists such as Toshimaru Nakamura, Oren Ambarchi, Carl Stone and Axel Dörner. However, this label was short-lived. Sound artist Goh Lee-Kwang later founded the label Herbal Records releasing recordings “under either field recording (and related), or abstract / noise, or simply unclassified”. He also founded Switch ON, a platform for electronic music, and had organised several festival editions of it. 

SiCKL 

In 2006, EMACM members, with the addition of video artist/vocal improviser Kok Siew-Wai, founded the artists collective SiCKL (Studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur). Having a base allowed the collective to develop more sustainable projects and hold regular events. In May 2006, SiCKL Open Lab series launched, which was a bi-monthly art laboratory that gathered artists and musicians from different disciplines for experimentation and improvisation. 

SiCKL. Photo Kok Siew Wai.


Throughout its active years between 2006-2009, the Open Lab series witnessed many refreshing and exciting cross-disciplinary experimentations among musicians of various backgrounds (electronic, noise, contemporary, folk, rock, improvisation, free jazz etc.), visual artists (live painting, light art, film & video etc.), and performers (dancers, actors, poets etc.). In addition to EMACM members, Au Sow Yee, Brian O’Reilly, Darren Moore, Fairuz Sulaiman, Justice Yeldham, Low Shee Hoe, Sudarshan Chandra Kumar, Tim O’ Dwyer, Ng Chor Guan, Thierry Monnier, Tomonari Nishikawa and many others participated at the SiCKL Open Lab.

Besides holding events at its premise, SiCKL received invitations to collaborate with other collectives and projects, including coordinating the experimental music programme of Notthatbalai Art Festival 2007 and running its Open Lab series at other art spaces such as Findars at The Annexe. It was also during this period that the team started to establish its regional and international network, with SiCKL hosting events and providing a living space for travelling artists. Invaluable friendships and professional partnerships formed during this period. 

Flyer for an early SiCKL show. Artwork by Aziz.


After 2009, SiCKL ceased to be an event venue due to lacking financial and human resource support. The team changed its administration with the remaining members embarking on an ambitious project to further develop and promote experimental art and music in Kuala Lumpur. With three years of experience hosting events and running the studio, the core SiCKL team became the producers of an artist-run festival celebrating experimental moving images and music. Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX) would run consecutively for ten years in the next decade.

KLEX 

KLEX started as a film and video festival in 2010 on a very modest scale. It took place over a weekend at The Annexe Gallery where the KLEX team set up a temporary 40-pax screening room with borrowed equipment. KLEX’s vision since the beginning was an international one. The first KLEX Festival had an international open call for the film programmes, with a jury committee selecting experimental shorts from around the world. In the second edition of the festival, KLEX added an audio-visual performance programme. The programme saw filmmakers/video artists collaborate with live musicians, projecting pre-edited works or live video mixing and cinematic performance. 

Otomo Yoshihide at KLEX 2019. Photo by Wong Yok Teng


From 2013 until the present, the core members are co-founders of KLEX are saxophonist Yong Yandsen and vocal improviser Kok Siew-Wai. As musicians, they gave more weight to music as the festival developed. In May 2014, KLEX launched the monthly music series called Serious Play Improv Lab (SPIL). SPIL continued in the spirit of the SiCKL art laboratory, providing a regular platform for local and international musicians to experiment and collaborate. The SPIL series takes place at RAW Art Space run by artist Tey Beng Tze, which is one of the most supportive venues in the city for experimental arts. SPIL has run monthly from 2014 until February 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the series is currently on hold. Besides RAW, The Saxophone Store, run by saxophonist Chung Ping Wei, is another local venue that hosts concerts focusing on improvised and experimental music.

Sabu Toyozumi at the Saxophone Store. Photo by Sim Hoi Ling



Sudarshan Chandra Kumar, Michael Edgerton, Kok Siew Wai, Yong Yandsen, Ren Xin, Lee Choy Wan at SPIL009 at RAW Art Space. Photo by Bannai Roo


Since 2015, the music and performance programme of KLEX has grown stronger with the participation of prominent musicians such as Bob Ostertag, Jaap Blonk, Sachiko M., Burkhard Beins, Dino, Otomo Yoshihide, Will Guthrie and Wukir Suryadi. KLEX approach is to encourage new collaborations at the festival. Some of these collaborations continue after the initial meeting at KLEX, such as the collaboration between Sound of the Mountain, a music duo from Canada, and filmmaker Shinkan Tamaki from Japan; and the formation of improv noise unit Tenggara Trio, with Dharma (Singapore), Ikbal S. Lubys (Indonesia) and Yong Yandsen. This approach creates excitement and anticipation for the musicians and performers to create something new and to establish new relationships via the festival platform. We have also seen more international audience coming to attend the festival from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore in recent years. 

Will Guthrie at KLEX 2017. Photo by Wong Yok Teng


Conclusion

Although a small scene with limited followers, the experimental and improvised music scene in Kuala Lumpur has been around for several decades now. It is undoubtedly playing an important role to provide a platform for musicians and audiences who look for unconventional sounds and music-making approaches. To document this local history, and to establish regional and international collaborations, LaoBan Records formed in 2017. The label’s current efforts serve “to document a group of artists who have performed and developed together through exchanges made within South East Asia”. As in the journey of life, challenges and surprises will always be there. Let’s take the risk, and improvise along this chosen path!  

ABOUT KOK SIEW WAI

Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kok Siew-Wai started as a video artist and is now active as a vocal improviser and artist-curator. She has shown her works, curated projects and performed in Asia, Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. Siew-Wai has participated in music festivals such as allEars Improvised Music Festival (Norway), Asian Meeting Festival (Japan), Choppa Experimental Music Festival, Playfreely (Singapore), CTM Festival (Germany) and Nusasonic Festival (Indonesia) amongst others. Siew-Wai is interested in improvisation and the exploration of expressions with the human voice. She is the co-founder and director of the Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX).

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