Rebels Without A Pause - Interview with EMACM's Kok Siew Wai

Audio anarchy in Kuala Lumpur - Off The Edge interviews Kok Siew Wai, vocal artist from the Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia (EMACM).

In the poorly lit loft of Central Market's Annexe, looking through the huge glass windows at the clogged Klang River, the great white elephant Dayabumi looming over it and the city, we wait. It is almost surreal to be seated on plastic chairs in this quiet space where dance beats and disco queens used to throb to laser lights and smoke machines.

Well, the laser lights will make a comeback towards the end of the concert, but what really gets me upright is a rag tag bunch of folks who look like they are slumming a pasar malam for recyclables on a Sunday morning. Hey, that guy is holding a clarinet, and he's not even in an evening suit. Is that sort of thing permissible?

Hell, why not. He lets his horn rip and bizarre squeaks and split notes rattle the foundations of what used to be Liquid Disco, and like the call of the piper, the merry band of noisemakers join in with their own instruments. Chaos.

Out of the din, the demure figure of Kok Siew Wai, the lone rose among the musical thorns, starts to vocalise her bloodcurdling cries, building up to a vocal seizure of the highest decibels.

This musical exorcism marks the pinnacle of an 'evening of experimental music' held at the Annexe a few months ago. the culprits were Kok and her band of experimental musicians who form the EMACM (Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia). Tucked away in an unsuspecting Cheras neighbourhood is their hideout, the SicKL (Studio in Cheras KL) at Jalan Jelawat 1, where they plan their heinous sonic activities to demolish every preconception of music KLites hold dear.

Off The Edge asks Kok, what drives her destructive instincts.

Why this constant rebellion against musical convention? Did you guys have a traumatic childhood?

Kok Siew Wai: Most of us have a thing with 'getting out of the box'; like questioning the idea of conformity and authority. perhaps we're trying to find our own voice; not to find a beautiful voice, but a genuine voice; some honesty in art, if you will, nothing fancy, but true. And to find that voice, you go through a process of trial and error. Finding your own words, grammar and language. trying different things, using different approaches. this process is personal; it's different for everyone, technically. this process is experimentation.

A traumatic childhood? hmm … let's see, I studied classical piano for ten years and thought that I hated music. And since the age of 16, I've never picked up the piano again …

That explains it! Is that why breaking the rules of music makes you feel good?

Yeah, better than beer. I mean, when you've 'found it' - that special something that you discover while breaking the rules and that you know makes sense - that is a very spiritual experience.

When did you start being a sonic trouble maker?

Around 2003. My alter ego is a video artist, so I'm kind of back and forth doing image and sound. It actually started when I did the sound design for my videos, then slowly I went up front to perform, nervously!

Tell us a bit about your merry band of musical lawbreakers.

EMACM are Yeoh Yin Pin (electric guitar), Yandsen (sax and clarinet), Tham Kar Mun (sax and clarinet), Goh Lee Kwang (sound mixer), Tan Kok hui (drums), Azmyl Yunor (guitar and banjo), Aziz (drums), Ronnie Khoo (guitar and laptop), Jazmi Jamal Izwan (keyboard and laptop), Robert Gomez (guitar) and myself (voice and toy instruments).

At the EMACM HQ in Cheras planning some heinous attack on world harmony
Some of us are a little more active than the others, some have other music projects going on simultaneously.

For instance, Azmyl is an established singer-songwriter in his own right; Aziz has his avant-rock/performance art group Ciplak; Tham and Yandsen used to play rock and are now both powerful woodwind players.

I met all these guys about two weeks after I came back from the US in 2006, and for this I feel very lucky. I saw them in the former Rumah Air Panas (RAP) bungalow, and they were noise-making with two clarinets, a no-input sound mixer, an electric guitar and a drum set. It was total chaos, and it was great. I love their energy.

After I got to know them better, I realised that they can play 'properly' too. It's a matter of choice why they play in this [experimental] way. Yandsen likes to say, 'If you make a sound, be responsible for it.'

Sometimes, we do have a rough guide, such as 'make sounds with random dots in motion', then you imagine and interpret that with your own sounds. Other times, we might do it without a guide. Then it requires total attention on the spot, and the ability of the musicians to listen to one another, simultaneously - how to express yourself, at the same time interacting with others, effectively; it's a communication between the musicians, on the spot. That's the beauty of improvisation.

I recall you mentioning you met Meredith Monk? What did she have to say about you putting her out of business with that crazy voice of yours?

Monk's getting old, so it's my turn … no, I wouldn't dare! I saw her recital of Dolmen Music, some twenty years after the first recital of the piece. It was truly moving.

Unfortunately I didn't have a chance to speak with her personally. however, Pauline Oliveros once commented on my sound piece where she said, 'Siew Wai, while I was listening to your piece, I saw a ghost!'

Okay … so what would you do if you were invited to sing on American Idol?

I can sing 'properly' too, hello?! I like Chinese oldies like Yue Lai Xiang or something. How about that?

So what sort of shenanigans does the EMACM get up to?

It goes kind of slow for us. I think most people in KL are not exposed to unconventional music - improvised music; noise, soundscape, free jazz ('jazz music for free ah?') and contemporary composers John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and the like.

Electronic music, maybe [they know] a little bit. For us, being dismissed from the general audience might be just because, you know, we're not good enough! People might be getting confused! That's why we are keen on bringing in established foreign musicians for 'educational purposes'. We do get some exposure in the KL arts scene at the Annexe and occasionally from crashing punk rock parties, thanks to uncle Joe Kidd.

We were included in the ChoppA Experimental Music Festival in Singapore in January in which our set was featured in Wired magazine. For now, we're trying to record and hopefully release an EMACM album in this year.

Our friend, the dancer Donna Miranda from Manila, for whom we've done dance music, has invited us for some projects there. We might do that next year if things work out. Meanwhile, we're trying to implement the SicKL open lab (SOL) program, a monthly art laboratory free for artists and musicians to experiment and to create new work, and hopefully meet more like minds to create a humble scene of improvised/experimental music in KL.

How did SicKL come about?

Yandsen and I came up with the idea of renting a loft as a practice space and also to host interesting, edgy arts events on occasion. We gathered enough people to share the rent, and we set up SicKL in May 2006. The current SicKL folks (namely, those who pay the rent!) include musicians, a filmmaker/video artist, a theatre director and a painter.

SicKL has hosted many fun, aspiring and unconventional arts events either in our Cheras studio, or elsewhere such as at the Annexe, and even once in Singapore. Blessings and luck, perhaps, that SicKL got to connect with several foreign artists who happened to stop by in KL, thinking, 'why not do a show'.

All in all, SicKL is a private studio and alternative art space. We've organised shows for sound artists Boris Baltschun (Germany), Emmanuel Mieville (France), performance artist Carlos Llavata (Spain), guitarist Eric Chenaux (Canada), laser light and sound artist robin Fox (Australia), artists and activists' collective the evolutionary Girls' Club (US), video-sound artist Koji Tambata (Japan), and coming up is filmmaker Tony Wu (Taiwan) in July.

What does SicKL hope to achieve?

We hope that people will respect what they are not familiar with and have an open mind. SicKL will try its best to provide more opportunities for artist-audience interaction. I'd just like to say that we're not 'joking about' here, when it comes to our art or music. And if it seems like we are, we're joking very seriously because we do think about these matters seriously.

So do you guys really think KL is Sick?

Let's see… KL is indulgent of what modernity looks like and an almost blind belief in high technology. We keep building things fanatically, and are proud of it. Fashion, skyscrapers, shopping malls, fitness centres, handphones, ipods, highways; we have them all, and guess what, we have an astronaut too! The more the merrier.

But in the day-to-day life situation for average city folks, we don't know how to take care of things after we've built them - okay, maybe not on Bintang Walk and KLCC. We're too concerned with acting like a developed country. Freedom of speech, ethics, public welfare, true equality for all, civic awareness, a progressive education system, genuine concern for world events and humanity (and not as a fad), critical thinking, patience, humility, self reliance and contentment - all these are lacking among city folk.

You can change your exterior easily, but the inside is harder to change. It might be a painful process, because you have to leave your comfort zone, because the vulnerable outer appearance will soon collapse if it doesn't have a strong base. then all are lies. And when you're out of balance, you know you're sick. If you don't cure it soon (or even admit it), it might become a terminal decease.

So … what do you say?

I agree, KL's a disease, so what is EMACM's cure?

Make art and be a better person, maybe?

Join the Revolusi! SicKL Open Lab happens on the last Saturday of every month at 8pm. Track down EMACM's covert music resistance activities at

- Off The Edge, July 2008