Bani Haykal on Speculative Futures, the Musicality of Language and Co-Producing with Machines

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Slow Conversations
Issue: On Listening

Filed under: installations, music, sound, text, technology
Bani Haykal experiments with text + music. As an artist, composer and musician, Bani considers music (making / processes) as material and his projects investigate modes of interfacing and interaction with feedback / feedforward mechanisms. He is a member of b-quartet. His current work frames encryption as a process and basis for human-machine intimacy by navigating interfaces such as a QWERTY keyboard as mediums of interactivity.

Working across sound and text, and on various subject matters, it could almost seem as if Bani dives down several rabbit holes all at once. Yet it has been important for Bani that all subsequent projects relate back to or feed into his main research interest. A recent project of the artist’s, Kampong Tenggelam, was made in collaboration with Ong Kian Peng. The work stitches the historical and contemporary together to create a sonic map, and is easily accessed online.

Tell us about your selection of artworks and music. Something that piqued my attention was that you numbered your selection, and the numbering started from 0 and compared to 1. Was this purposeful?

This is more to do with a general habit that I've had with regard to listing down items on my computer. Starting with zero has just been a habitual thing for me. An interesting point to note is that machines identify zero as the first number as opposed to one. If one looks into programming interfaces or languages, zero always comes first in the order. So this is one of the ways in which I attribute respect to the machine, which has been so significant to how I’ve been working.

¹ Composition 98, Anthony Braxton Quartet
1981, Performance in Hamburg

Let’s move into discussing Anthony Braxton and the role he’s had in shaping how you approach your own practice. Braxton’s practice escapes the clutches of easy categorisation (in his own words: “My music occupies a space in between defined idioms."). Could you speak a little more as to how you first encountered Braxton’s oeuvre, and if there is a particular composition of his that has expanded the way in which you think about music?

My introduction to Anthony Braxton was sometime around 2009 or 2010. I was going down a rabbit hole in terms of looking into the repertoires of free jazz musicians and composers from the 20th century. One way of putting it is that I was looking into the jazz canon, but something that’s interesting to note is that Braxton was, strictly speaking, never part of that canon. I believe he almost took pleasure in that fact because he sees his work as flirting with the idea of jazz itself.

Braxton speaks a lot about respecting tradition and borrowing from traditions whilst finding one’s own place with that material as well. His work really stuck out to me, and it resonated in the way that I was hoping to think about music. He uses this term “transidiomatic” to describe something that is beyond the ordinary or conventional definitions of musical vocabularies. This question of what it would mean to work within a transidiomatic frame was very exciting for me. At that point in time, I was thinking about how I could take my work with musical ideas and theories further. How could I break out of my own shell? I’m not a trained musician in the classical or conventional sense of the term. What would it mean to immerse yourself in, and listen to the various traditions that surround you, whilst moving past it? How do you move past without being held captive or trapped by concepts of, for example, fusion music? Within the context of Singapore, we often think about what it means to make music between the binaries of the traditional and the contemporary, or the East and West. Braxton’s work was a beacon of light for me because he was saying that these binaries didn’t necessarily have to exist. There are ways for us to push past these frames.

Coming into contact with these materials gave me hope. It also provided a new dimension for the way that music activity could eventually unfold or manifest itself. I think Braxton put a lot of his own ideas, politics, readings, and also his own impressions of what it means to listen to a sound or interpret a sound within a composition. These frames and these ideas resonated with me a lot. The first recording of his that I remember hearing was a live performance of his composition. I saw it on YouTube, and it was a quartet performance in Hamburg, 1981. It was a remarkable concert. It realigned a lot of my preconceived notions as to what music is or is not and what jazz is or is not. I can gush all day about what Braxton means to me, but ultimately it was the fact that his practice, single handedly, made me realize that there was a lot more to music than these notions of melodies and harmonies that we're familiar with. The world of composition can be decentered. It doesn't have to revolve around what the composer dictates. Space can be given to musicians so that they are able to enter into the composer’s world as well.

The world of composition can be decentered. It doesn't have to revolve around what the composer dictates. Space can be given to musicians so that they are able to enter into the composer’s world as well.

² The Antiguitar (from Dormant Music series), Bani Haykal

³ The Recycle (from Dormant Music series), Bani Haykal

Calls, Yuko Mohri
2013 — ongoing, Installation at Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Following this train of thought with regard to music that sits outside conventional or institutionalised frameworks, another work you picked out for our conversation was Yuko Mohri’s work, Calls. Calls is an assemblage of everyday items such as glasses and forks that move as a result of forces such as gravity, magnetism and friction. The work positions sound-making as inevitable, rhythmic, and continuous. What sort of affinities do you find yourself drawing with this work?

I had the great fortune of being part of a group exhibition with a couple of artists, including Yuko Mohri, at the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre in 2014. That was when I first encountered her work, Calls, and I also had the chance to speak with her. Whilst we were setting up our works, we would often take breaks and wander around the cent. When I entered the space where Yuko Mohru was installing her work, she explicitly used the term “composing” in thinking about how she was installing her work. I might not recall it verbatim but I remember her saying, “I am still composing my work”. She wasn’t talking through the process of how she was doing this, but she was giving a sense of what it ultimately meant to be composing a space with these materials and objects. That was probably the first time, as late as it would be, it seeped into my consciousness that playing with material within a physical space is, in and of itself, a form of composition as well. I had always thought of composing within the context of theatre of film, but for some reason, it had never occured to me that working with either site-specific or site-responsive installation works could also be thought of as a form of composition.

Yuko Mohri puts a lot of thought into her works, and you can see this in the way she thinks about the notion of tension. If you’ve seen documentation of Calls or some of her other works, there are these moments where the fork, for example, never really touches the glass. These are such beautiful moments. You’d know what they sound like musically, but yet you’re hearing it visually. When I enter a space or think about what it means to present my works, I now think of what Yuko Mohri said about composing a space. What kind of dynamism would I like to achieve with the space? What kind of colour should sit in the space? How should people interact with it? Is there a linearity to the narrative that one encounters within this space? These are all things that have stayed with me since I encountered Calls.

I’m speaking about the work from a very technical point of view, but there are so many layers to the work itself. Much like a musical expression, it has this open endedness but yet is very specific in its emotive qualities. One thing that I really appreciate about this work, and many other site-responsive works, is that much like music, it requires your durational presence in the space. It requires you to be immersed in the way that the artist is hoping you feel or encounter the work.

What kind of dynamism would I like to achieve with the space? What kind of colour should sit in the space? How should people interact with it? Is there a linearity to the narrative that one encounters within this space?

Musical language or terminology can be incredibly helpful in terms of expanding our perspectives with regard to art making or the presentation of art, but at the same point in time, the discipline of music comes with its own baggage as well. Particularly with projects such as Dormant Music, could how has a framework of thinking about music through parallels or non-musical objects broadened your perspective on sound?

This all stemmed from a very personal place, and it goes back to Braxton again, in wanting to fight or confront these dominant habits we have when it comes to music. Playing a guitar, for example, is governed by certain standards. First there are chords, then the melody, and finally the harmonies. I was frustrated with this, and I wanted to break out of this habit or to find another way around it. On a similar trajectory, it always feels as if there are certain parameters that define how one should learn an instrument. Of course there isn’t just one single way of learning anything, but there are guidelines as to how one should hold the guitar, for example, or play chords. This idea of what it meant to learn an instrument became something that I was quite annoyed yet tickled by. For me, it went back to the question of what does it mean to truly master an instrument? What are we learning in the process? Do you stop learning once you’ve mastered an instrument? There is also this whole other side of things where people are often daunted by the task of learning an instrument. When people talk about picking up the guitar, one common refrain I’ve heard is that people are worried their fingers aren’t strong enough.

I wanted to see if I could come up with an instrument that didn’t have historical rules governing how it should be played. What if we had an instrument that was free from this canon and these conventions? Instead, it would be up to the musician to figure out how the instrument could be played. Specifically with The Antiguitar and The Recycle, I had no idea how to play them as well. When I first conceived of them, I just thought of what was necessary in terms of maintaining string tension and the integrity of the instrument. Interfacing directly with it was something foreign to me as well. When you think of dormancy, the idea of something that’s alive yet inactive comes to mind. It’s almost as if you’re waiting for something to occur, but it just hasn’t happened yet. My interest in interactivity started here. What does it mean to interact with an object or an instrument that clearly states that there is no right or wrong way to interact with it? In fact, any way is potentially the way to produce musical expression.

This project eventually expanded into a couple of other works. One of these works was The Americans have colonised our subconscious, which took the form of a wall instrument with two panels, one white and one red. The instrument had fifty strings that were attached across these two panels quite haphazardly. It was designed in such a way that some of these strings did not resonate or produce the clear tones one would associate with a string instrument. Some of the sounds produced were rather muted. In comparison to Dormant Music where the outcome was rather open-ended, I began playing with strategies or design. The Americans have colonised our subconscious had very specific constraints as to how one would interact with them, but similarly it didn’t have any history attached to it. There wasn't a right or wrong way of playing the instrument as well. It was just about how one would interact with the instrument, make sense of it and the world that it offers up.
⁵ The Americans have colonised our subconscious, Bani Haykal
2014, Installation at Silverlens Gallery

⁶ The Americans have colonised our subconscious, Bani Haykal
2014, Installation at Silverlens Gallery

The way in which you’ve described the process of putting these instruments together is really striking. With these experiments, was there something that you were consciously reaching towards? For example, was there a particular sound in your mind that you wanted to recreate with these instruments, or were you looking to formulate a particular mode of interacting with an instrument?

The Antiguitar and The Recycle were quite open in that there was more focus on what it meant to augment an object to the point that it mutated beyond its conventional form. With The Americans have colonised our subconscious, it was about creating obstacles that would prevent the instrument from ringing or singing in the way one would expect a stringed instrument to sound. The former works stemmed from visual components, and the latter was more sonic. With The Americans have colonised our subconscious, I was actively thinking about how we could mine the instrument for ideas with a set of constraints in place. How do we find different ways to orientate ourselves around these instruments?

After I made those works, I made another work titled ZOMBIEDRUMS. ZOMBIEDRUMS applies the existing concept or technique of feedback mechanisms. We're all familiar with the feedback that happens when you place a microphone next to a speaker or in close proximity. I was interested in thinking about other ways to manifest this concept of feedback or a machine that self oscillates. As opposed to placing a speaker and a microphone at a distance from one another, I wanted there to be visual clarity around how these objects were housed together. For ZOMBIEDRUMS, the main work exists around a snare drum. I used a small contact microphone and a tiny 1-ohm speaker, and they both shared space with the snare drum. The skin of the snare drum became the surface that connected these two objects together. Traditionally, you don’t get any activity on the contact microphone unless you have the gain pumped all the way up. It needs material in order to detect something. In this case, that was the snare drum. Snare drums are very hollow chambers. The moment you place these objects inside, it produces feedback and the pitch revolves around the proximity of the speaker and the contact microphone itself. As a result, I could utilise the snare drum as a strange instrument. I could place objects such as coins on the surface and the feedback sound produced would then be altered because the skin of the snare drum plays a part in negotiating the kind of material that is generated when the speaker and the contact microphone interacts.

As someone who works intimately with text and music, I wanted to get your thoughts on the textualization of sound as well. How would you describe the way in which you work with text and sound, and how this has shaped your understanding of how text captures sound and how sound dramatizes text?

I only began explicitly identifying text within my practice about five or six years ago. I started out writing songs for a band, but this was disrupted by National Service, and that band never really had much of an opportunity to create material together. As a result of this pause, I began focusing on the textual elements of writing a song. I got into spoken word and doing spoken word performances for a period of time. Up until the late 2000s, I still thought of myself as someone who did spoken word performances. It wasn’t until the last three or four years that text became a sonic or musical material for me.

I wanted to step beyond this notion of writing poetry for the stage. Some of the pieces I started working on became these really long blocks of text, and I paid a lot of attention to how words were arranged or organised, how the syllables were composed, and what this interaction was like. On some level, it’s often repetitive and imagistic, but that was because I wanted to utilise text as a means of performing rhythmic patterns as well. There’s a certain homage or respect given to rap music here. Words, rhymes and rhythm are incredibly important in making these musical expressions. Whilst there was some borrowing of that tradition, I was mostly thinking about the fact that I can’t beatbox. Despite that, I had this desire to churn out very rhythmic and music expressions through text. That was how I found myself within this particular framework where all I was really interested in doing was playing with rhythm through text.

At the same time, I've also been deliberately writing in Malay more as well. On the one hand, I am interested in the poetics of the language. On the other hand in using language as sound or sonic material, different qualities can be achieved depending on whether or not one understands Malay. Playing between English and Malay has been interesting for me. Whilst my command of Malay is not very good, I do feel like there is a certain naivety but also curiosity in the way that I can start formulating my own position on the language and the way I utilise it — how hard or soft it sounds or how it feels. There’s a certain difference between that and writing in English, and that was exciting for me.

Some of the pieces I started working on became these really long blocks of text, and I paid a lot of attention to how words were arranged or organised, how the syllables were composed, and what this interaction was like. On some level, it’s often repetitive and imagistic, but that was because I wanted to utilise text as a means of performing rhythmic patterns as well.

Certain languages are also associated with varying affective or emotive qualities. Just hearing someone speak a language has the capacity to activate a personal memory. With this project, are you interested in accessing or tapping into these aspects of sonic memory particularly in relation to different languages?

I think so. I’ve noticed that I've been referencing my mother when it comes to some aspects of utilising the language. For those who grew up in Malay-speaking households, they’d probably relate to this experience a fair bit. My mom sometimes says, “Kau ni macam tak faham bahasa!” My stand is that there's no equivalent of this phrase in English, but it has the same energy as that Chris Tucker statement: “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” It’s got that kind of buoyancy, yet at the same time, it packs a tight punch. It’s brutal, and it really signifies that one has no idea about what’s being said or the message that’s being sent across. Utilising that definitely allows for an entry point into concepts or ideas, that might seem quite technical through these grounded frameworks, about what it means to communicate with or relate to someone else.

To me, the Malay language has that kind of potential. I also find the exercise of translating or interpreting these things useful when thinking ahead about the sort of paradigms or frames my work deals with. This also speaks to my ongoing interest and work on encryption and what it means to codify language.
Kampong Tenggelam, Bani Haykal and Ong Kian Peng

⁸ Kampong Tenggelam, Bani Haykal and Ong Kian Peng

The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline, Debbie Ding

A recent work of yours, Kampong Tenggelam, responds to a hand drawn map by artist Latiff Mohidin. It maps the contours of the Kampong Gelam area from the early 1950s, and is drawn from memory. This recalls one of the works you picked out for this interview: the psychogeography that Debbie Ding’s work, The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline, deals with.

Soundscapes are laden with affect and contain rich psychogeographical textures. Kampong Tenggelam responds to the past. Could you walk us through the process of making this work, and how both yourself and Ong Kian Peng (Bin) dealt with the question of time in piecing these fragments together?

When we were approached for the project, I knew that I wanted to work with Bin. We’ve been sharing a space for quite some time, but for some reason, we’ve never had the chance to work together so this felt like the right opportunity. A recent strategy of mine has been to ensure that all the projects I take on draw back to my main interests or the things that I’m currently obsessing over. Kampong Tenggelam is situated within an ongoing series of works I’m making around speculative fiction and speculative futures. I’m interested in writing about communities that have found different ways, or new ways, to survive the troubles. The time period is never defined, but it is gestured as being some time ahead or in the future. With Kampong Tenggelam, the premise of the work, or the community that I had interest in writing about, dealt with this idea of what it meant to remember or what it meant to store memories. This goes in line with data economies, the way we are both exporting and producing vast amounts of data, and where that data is being stored. For Kampong Tenggelam, it was this notion of having a parallel dimension where these data sets or this information is stored for just one community. It is something that has been locked in and is only accessible should one possess the right hardware to enter into this world. I wanted to introduce that experience of going into this other space altogether.

We started working on this project about a month after we went into lockdown. Bin and I had to work independently, in that sense. Based on Pak Latiff’s map, we mapped out the different spaces we wanted to visit and document. Bin and I probably made a total of three or four trips each to survey the site. Bin captured 360-degree images of the Kampong Gelam area, and I went in to capture 360-degree audio. When we were on-site, it was very obvious to Bin and I that there was an absence, or what seemed like an absence, of human activity. If you listen back to the recordings, as much as it is rather quiet, there are other elements that have been heightened, including the sound of birds. You still get the sound of traffic from passing vehicles, but you don’t hear human traffic as much. The images that Bin captured were rather precise in that humans or cars were not captured. With sound, I tried to record the environment as faithfully as possible but we did some post-production with these recordings so as to mirror what this other space was like. It wasn’t just about this void or these hollow spaces that we encountered over the lockdown period. There was a lot more texture present, and we tried to amplify those textures.

Another thing that struck me — and this might seem a little more generic — was that we don’t pay enough attention to the sounds we’re producing. In the few encounters I had with the site, birds were the loudest inhabitants in the space. I go back to thinking about Bernie Krause’s work on sonic ecologies — how different sonic interventions have a profound effect on the way we listen to a space and how we share that space. Working on Kampong Tenggelam was interesting for me because I started reflecting on what it meant to be immersed in a space where we aren’t the only inhabitants. This should go without saying, but this exercise made me pay more attention to the relationships we share with other living beings and biological critters.

A recent strategy of mine has been to ensure that all the projects I take on draw back to my main interests or the things that I’m currently obsessing over. Kampong Tenggelam is situated within an ongoing series of works I’m making around speculative fiction and speculative futures.

With the work, the way sound travels through one’s earphones when listening to it replicates the sort of space demarcation that map-making attempts. How has the physicality of a space you work in or respond to coloured the way in which you think about your working processes, and how has this shifted with our current digitally-saturated reality?

As someone who works with sound and with music, the one thing that has been quite clear for me is that I’ve encountered a shift over the years in terms of spaces for making. Right now, a lot of my musical or sonic world exists through headphones. This is in comparison to, perhaps, five years ago, when I worked in a physical studio space and with a lot of acoustic instruments. That shift also was marked by a movement away from acoustic instruments that would have required amplification and towards the laptop. It was a concerted effort on my part to get to know my machine better. My encounter with sound and music also began shifting because I was paying a lot more attention to my machinic counterpart.

I haven’t entered that space where I’m thinking about how my machine is listening to me, but at this point in time, I’m thinking a lot about how I’m co-producing music with my machine. In paying respect to the machine, I have to find a new spatial contract where we can work with one another. I don’t think that space has shrunk all because I’ve put on a set of headphones. It seems to me like a different bottomless pit altogether. There are, of course, certain constraints to what a machine can produce, but I would say that there is a rather infinite depth to what can be done. I’m still learning and trying to figure out what my machine and I can do together. How can we dive in together to find new expressions through sound or musical activity?

To conclude, it’d be great if we could discuss the place of collaboration within your practice. This epoch that we find ourselves operating within is steeped in capitalist anxieties and the fevered rhetoric of individualism. Given that backdrop, it can almost seem counterintuitive to centre the collective. Yet, these efforts seem pivotal to your practice. How do you approach notions of polyphony and interdependency within your practice, and what sort of possibilities have they opened up for you?

The main thing for me is to be mindful of the fact that the future and the project of the future is going to be a messy endeavour. It’s not so much about how we clean this mess up, but how we’re going to negotiate this mess together. The notion of interdependence is a perfect frame for this, and Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst examine this in their podcast, Interdependence. I won’t call it a movement, but it does feel like a movement too. What does it mean to be extending support across networks, and how can we establish these relationships whilst allowing for the mess to exist? When I think about this notion of polyphony or polyphonic futures, I think it’s important that we steer away from singular concepts of the future. Personally, I also think that the future is about slowing down. It is about allowing for delays and decays to be examined, understood, reflected upon as opposed to being written off.

I’ve always paid a lot of visits to different collectives and different spaces, and I’ve been involved in one way or another. It’s important to note that you don’t have to immerse yourself completely into a movement in order to advance a vision. All of us have different voices and directions. We need to respect and support one another so that we can all move towards where we’d like to be.

Having said that, one of the things that excites me most when working on a project is this ability to put together teams of people. This could be with long-standing collaborators, or with people I’ve never worked with before. In setting these teams up, even if they’re temporary in nature, and creating new works and new worlds together, the hope is that these energies can be taken forward into different projects or different teams. That sense of mutual respect, support or interest can then contribute towards these generative futures.

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