Sights & sounds of the Silk Road


  • Lifestyle
  • Saturday, 18 Jun 2005

by ANDREW SIA Pictures by ANDREW SIA & RICKY LAI

Travelled on the Silk Road and want to present a show on it? OK. Splash video footage onto four screens (pic, right). Match it with Tibetan chants, dainty sitar-like melodies, neighing horses and bicycle bells. Stir in a pounding horror movie-type soundtrack along with soothing New Agey swishies. What do you get? 

Entitled Virtual Encounters on the Silk Road, this multimedia event – half-concert, half-installation art – is being offered by French duo Sisygambis tomorrow evening in Kuala Lumpur.  

“We wanted to give people an experience of the Silk Road’s culture that is beyond words and language,” clarified Christine Coulange, traveller, videographer, musician, composer, computer mixer and spokesperson for the duo, at an interview the week before.  

“It’s not a (straight) report of our journey . . . no, far from that. It’s an artpiece. Much more lyrical than a documentary.” 

Along with Sisygambis co-founder Nchan Manoyan and several other collaborators, they rough and tumbled their way on the Silk Road in 1999 starting from Marseille in Southern France, on through Turkey, Pakistan, Tibet and Xinjiang (China), before ending at Shanghai.  

They moved by bus and train, got arrested in Turkey on suspicion of being Kurdish terrorists, were compelled to skip Iran and Iraq, wore burkhas (the Afghan women’s sieve-like head covering) in Pakistan to secretly film scenes and made sonic liaisons everywhere in between.  

They recorded all kinds of sounds – traditional musical instruments, sounds of nature, hawkers shouting through bazaar loudspeakers, cars honking, mosque calls to prayers, monks chanting – and coalesced it with their own musical compositions.  

“We matched it all to the videos we took. Each image has its own sound,” noted Coulange.  

Christine Coulange and Nchan Manoyancontrolling the action like DJs (also below right).

To add to the complexity (and perhaps exhilaration), the show’s sounds ooze or blast out (depending on the mood) from eight different “sound diffusion points”. And the video is retro-projected – meaning that the four screens lie in between the projectors (in the centre) and the audience (on the periphery, walking around), rather than behind the audience as in a normal cinema.  

The net effect of all this? Depending on where you are in the concert-cum-exhibition hall, Virtual Encounters on the Silk Road offers a unique audio/video-scape. In some positions, you see only one screen and hear one predominant audio track. In others, you are bombarded by all four screens and drenched in utter polyphonia.  

“Which is why we encourage the audience to walk around during the show,” she added.  

“This is not a movie. Absolutely not. This is not about one image or sound predominating. There is freedom in what you want to hear and see. The public have an active role in their own experience.” 

Indeed the brew of multi-visuals amidst dramatic movie-esque music during their first show in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday was, for this writer, both a stimulating and mind-swirling experience at the same time. A random post-show sampling of audience opinions then had words like: fascinating, very interesting, goood . . . but a bit repetitive, umm . . . weird-lah.  

This writer would also add transcendental and hypnotic . . . like watching semi-random splices of a video travel diary while clubbing to trance or tribal house music. Meanwhile, the duo were positioned in the centre, near the vortex of the four screens, controlling the action almost like DJ’s through their battery of digital equipment.  

The show’s mood was even reflected in the curious French-flavoured English of their press release:  

Contemporary explorers equipped with numerical (I’m sure they mean digital) gear, Nchan Manoyan and Christine Coulange got impregnated with songs, glances and dust in Peshawar (Pakistan), Lijiang, the Taklamakan desert and the Kashgar oasis town (all in China) . . . the story material becomes a parallel between image and sound ...;lucidity ties the artists up to the objects of their emotions . . . a performance that exceeds a concert, a concert that is not a documentary, a documentary that makes a movie, a story to be lived more than told. To the East yet again!  

Translation? Basically, this whole show was about a trip and it felt-totally-kinda-like, yeaaah . . . trippy, y’know what I’m sayin’? 

“We were not tourists. Absolutely not,” insisted Coulange, who alternated between strained, halting English and bursts of expressive French (there was a translator).  

“Sometimes when we see TV in France we cannot understand (the full picture). TV has a veil where time and shots are limited. We found context in real life. Our journey was about meeting people through music and discovering their real identity, their traditional culture, their habits . . . In that way we are like modern explorers,” she said.  

“Whenever we arrived in any town, we would seek out local musicians. Everywhere in the world, musicians always want to meet other musicians. In that way, we were closely connected to real people, to life (on the Silk Road).”  

“We had no problems communicating even though we only spoke one or two words of the local languages . . . like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. We connected totally . . . music is such an incredible visa for meeting people,” explained Coulange, syncopated by characteristic French shrugs and mouth-blown “poohs”.  

For instance, in Lahore, Pakistan, they visited an Institute of Philosophy and Music where the director had created a new instrument by blending the veenai and sitar.  

“His daughter was the only person who knew how to play it and we recorded her,” she recounted. “We don’t think many people could have entered so easily into this institute. This is how music opened doors for us.”  

The duo, who were originally rock musicians, created Sisygambis in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed them to “share networks” with artists in Eastern Europe and Russia. They had been recording sounds and images since then but it was only in the late 90s, with the advent of affordable digital video and powerful computers, that they could plunge fully into multi-media.  

Virtual Encounters on the Silk Road has been exhibited/performed at various art/film/multi-media festivals throughout France since 2002. It has now been brought to Malaysia as part of the French Arts Festival 2005, organised by the French Embassy. Their next project is another video-musical journey, this time of the Indian Ocean, in which they intend to collaborate with Malaysian musicians.  

What does Sisygambis mean?  

“It’s the name of the Queen of Persia who was arrested by Alexander the Great and who later committed suicide in prison. Not only is it a unique name and story but it also signifies the beginning of our trip towards Asia and the East,” replied Coulange. 

What are their ages?  

“It is forbidden to ask,” she smiled, “We are beyond age.”  

What about their central message? 

The duo looked a bit perplexed, paused and conferred in French.  

“Depending on where you stand, the world seems different,” she finally summarised. “This applies not only to the show but to life in general.” W 

Virtual Encounters on the Silk Road will be on at 6.30pm tomorrow evening at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC), Sentul West, Jalan Stratchan, off Jalan Ipoh. For enquiries, call (03) 4047 9000/2094 1400.

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