Singaporean band's multimedia arts series draws inspiration from Malaysian caves


The members of The Observatory band jotting down notes at Gua Kajang in Lenggong, Perak. Photo: Arabelle Zhuang

Singaporean experimental band The Observatory’s Dharma, was raised in Ipoh, Perak, grew up surrounded by caves in the Kinta Valley, but he had not entered these subterranean portals until a visit to Gua Tempurung in late 2022.

Dharma recalls going off the beaten track with his band members, only to reach a point where it was pitch black.

“Our eyes were open, but we couldn’t see anything,” recalls the musician, a Malaysian who has resided in Singapore since 1989.

Dharma adds that he is at a loss for words to describe his encounter with this sensory deprivation.

“Once that happened, I could hear minute details of small sounds.”

Since then, he also visited another cave where archaeologists excavated the 11,000-year-old Perak Man – one of the oldest human skeletons found in Malaysia.

These underground sonic worlds – of a flowing stream or of bats and swiftlets in their natural habitat – will be transmuted into the band’s avant garde, ever-evolving musical language as part of the multidisciplinary performance Refuge on May 31 and June 1 during the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

It is a chance to go spelunking in the lesser-known caves of Perak and Sarawak (the Niah and Mulu caves) with The Observatory’s band members – Dharma, Yuen Chee Wai and Cheryl Ong – and dive deep into existential questions about human history and geological time.

Some of the other caves they went to were Gua Lang, Gua Puteri, Gua Toh Semelah and Gua Kelawar located at Lenggong Valley and Kinta Valley.

Between 2022 and 2024, The Observatory conducted research for the 'Refuge' project by exploring over 10 caves in Perak and Sarawak. Photo: Arabelle ZhuangBetween 2022 and 2024, The Observatory conducted research for the 'Refuge' project by exploring over 10 caves in Perak and Sarawak. Photo: Arabelle Zhuang

Yuen, on his visits to the caves across Malaysia, was reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010), in which the German film-maker describes cave art of creatures like bisons – drawn some 32,000 years ago – as a form of “proto-cinema”.

While The Observatory will not be able to replicate the experience of moving through these caves, Yuen says they will “translate some ideas and thoughts that had derived and perceived” from their expeditions.

Formed in 2001, The Observatory have more than a dozen albums to its name and have played at gigs and music festivals worldwide. No two albums by the experimental outfit sound the same, as the band’s fluid line-up ensures that its music is always evolving.

Since the late 2000s, they have ventured beyond presenting works which are purely in the music realm, working with artists across disciplines to produce works such as Invisible Room, presented with artist Ho Tzu Nyen and theatre director Kok Heng Leun for the then-Singapore Arts Festival in 2009.

Refuge, which comes on the heels of the group’s Refuse – an inter-media exhibition about music and mushrooms at the Singapore Art Museum in 2022 – uncovers familiar themes around subterranean networks in new formats, but the band say it is not born of any conscious artistic direction.

'Refuge' by The Observatory is a live performance project inspired by the subterranean world. Pictured is the Great Cave of Gua Niah in Sarawak. Photo: Arabelle Zhuang'Refuge' by The Observatory is a live performance project inspired by the subterranean world. Pictured is the Great Cave of Gua Niah in Sarawak. Photo: Arabelle Zhuang

Yuen says: “It is unlike us to rehash things that have been done before. Just like our species, we keep on evolving and changing, questioning and challenging. It is with such energies that we find new articulations that make us meaningful. Perhaps that is our anima.”

For Refuge, the band will once again cook up a new sound by bringing in kindred collaborators such as vocalist Rully Shabara, one half of Indonesian experimental duo Senyawa. The Yogyakarta-based musician has been exploring how artificial intelligence can augment his voice through techniques such as sampling, mangling, glitching and sequencing.

Another artistic collaborator Justin Shoulder, Yuen says, will bring an interest in “dreaming up and devising future folklores” to create creatures that will inhabit the performance world of Refuge.

The Malay peninsula, Yuen has learnt, continues to be very important to global archaeological history.

“We’ve known how culturally rich and diverse this region has been, but to be able to research – to see, touch, feel, hear, smell and sense – all these things right at your fingertips make it so much more magical and real.”

Although the band have sought refuge in Malaysia’s caves, Yuen speculates about what urban Singapore’s “caves” might be.

“Is it these interconnecting tunnels between buildings of excess that are air-conditioned? Are these the caves we inhabit and that we will inhabit in the future?” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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