Craig Kupka — Crystals: New Music For Relaxation 2 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Imaginary Regions is a series of mixes made by Ricks Ang, head honcho of KITCHEN. LABEL. These mixes comprise of new age, ambient, environmental, and relaxation records, compact discs, and cassette tapes.
This episode, Fourth World SBC, features music channelled and shazamed from BGM used in shows by the now-defunct Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), which was active in the 1980s and early-1990s.
Most record finds were unearthed from the vaults of the legendary Red Point Records who had previously acquired the albums in job lots from defunct radio libraries in Singapore.
Here, Ricks Ang pens a piece about the music that defined this era — how new age and ambient tracks helped soundtrack stories of a reimagined and fantastical Singapore, and how he found these records at a local record warehouse.
Ricks Ang, pictured.
Listen to “Fourth World SBC”, the first Imaginary Regions mix:
How do we go beyond the “fourth world” musical ideas of pioneers like Eno and Jon Hassell?
Defined by Hassell as a kind of folk music from “unknown and imaginary regions”, the method behind making “fourth world” music was to disengage and create some other world while blurring our very own.
Subliminally, in television, fantasy/sci-fi/horror and melancholic drama series in the 1980s, produced by the then-SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, now Mediacorp) such as Mystery (迷离夜) and Romance of the Season (恋曲 1991) — to name a few — are fine examples of what happens when you dive into this world.
Stills captured from existing footage of Romance of the Season.
The directors responsible for these works, hailing from Hong Kong, decisively chose to disengage from everyday Singapore life to draw a new myth of where we live.
From perfectly-dubbed Chinese dialogues, proto-vaporwave graphics, 80s interiors, and fashion, dreamy pastoral landscapes, to unrealistic story plots of a world reimagined, there was also a curious mix of music that straddled the line of pop, smooth jazz, new age, ambient music, and pure synthesizer noodling.
Before the advent of Netflix, reruns of these shows would air after midnight during weekdays. With the use of song identifiers such as Shazam, it has helped to find matches to musical accents and deep cuts, which unleashed a whole new music discovery level. There are some saxophones and a lot of crystalline synths, and that is a different kind of obsession I cannot escape from.
Aside from more prominent names like Enya, Kenny G, and Ennio Morricone, there was a treasure of musical delights by artists less-known in the public spotlight but prolific in their work. Keiko Matsui’s ‘Under the Northern Lights’ is found on the drama series The Magnate (叱咤风云), and the track ‘Chakra 4’ by Mannheim Steamroller was captured on an episode of Mystery.
The theme song for Mystery, which is currently available to stream on Netflix.
The first few seconds of the track ‘Belissima’ by Atmosphere (released on krautrock giant Klaus Schulze’s iconic label Innovative Communications) were often used on various scenes of heartbreak and shock throughout the era.
There are cuts from obscure Taiwanese ambient pioneer Chen Shyh Shing — released on Rock Records before the label’s mainstream success — and Toshifumi Hinata.
During this era, the latter was a much sought-after composer for Japanese film and TV, such as Tokyo Love Story, Long Vacation, and Gift, and whose work was recently reappraised by ambient music label Music From Memory with the compilation Broken Belief).
The old broadcasting station also had a streak of using instrumental pieces from labels such as Windham Hill (in particular, George Winston and Will Ackerman), New World Company, and Narada Mystique. For an extended period since then, the artists from their rosters were somewhat detested for being associated with that tag: New Age. Thirty years after, they have somewhat come full circle, regaining contemporary relevance among ambient music connoisseurs.
During this time, I started to put a lot of effort into research, and the experience made me understand what I wanted to reach for with my sound as a music selector. At that point, I began to buy records.
I buy most of my stuff on Discogs or during trips to Japan. In Singapore, I spend the most hours digging at Red Point Record Warehouse.
The owner Mr Ong is a massive collector. He helped me with the records that I wanted, always simplistically streamlining my preference as “the Enya type of music” (not that I mind) before unloading crates of 80s-90s new age LPs and CDs, inherited as job lots from defunct sound and radio libraries in Singapore.
The pile of CDs, vinyl, and cassette tapes used for this mix.
A lot of these have library reference numbers written on labels in marker pens. The album Crystal New Age by Robert Haig Coxon Jr even has a handwritten note to describe each track’s moods, quite likely as a reference to how it can be used as background music for films.
I might have completely missed out on Chen Shyh Shing’s album Emptiness if not for the fact that I vaguely remembered seeing the name on my Shazam list. I scored the LP for $15, and today it is worth US$150 on Discogs(!).
Coincidentally (or not), many of these songs and albums on my Shazam list were rediscovered at the record store. We cannot be entirely sure, but we hope to be optimistic in thinking that some of the rediscovered records at the record store might have been the same original source where the music was sampled for TV in those days.
The lost moods of old SBC drama serials and 80s new age records found at Red Point Record Warehouse have been an immense source I can draw from to create the mix “Fourth World SBC” as part of my new series “Imaginary Regions” on Singapore Community Radio.
I selected songs from tracks found on Shazam and mixed them with music from vinyl records, compact discs, and cassette tapes salvaged there, leading me to this imaginary atmosphere.
These are tracks that everybody could listen to with pleasure — but, at the same time, to be able to dig into strange elements that can be appreciated on a deeper level. It comes to mind a term I often use as “hard easy listening”.
I think you can find something in this mix to reimagine some of the inner scenery around you. And sometimes, these sounds have a way of coloring our memory in ways that we’ve yet to imagine.
A little disclaimer: the people behind Evening Chants are good friends of mine, and I’ve had the honor of performing at their pop-up shows in pre-COVID times.
But while the growth of the label is something I’ve witnessed from the ground up, with the grunt work carried out by label owner Nigel Lopez in its infancy, there’s also very little I know intimately about the label’s behind-the-scenes activity. At least, until now.
With just three releases under their belt, Evening Chants has defied easy categorization. The duo of Nigel Lopez and Jasmine Ho, who serves as the label’s creative director, have established the label as less a distinct home for genre-specific music than a space of unfettered exploration — allowing the crystallized loops of Softman to coexist with Melting Bridge, a Taiwan-based duo whose music is a meditative and fractured reflection of the environment it was birthed from.
Handpicking music from Singapore and beyond, Evening Chants releases albums on limited edition cassettes; replete with artwork and packaging that explains why their tapes sell out so easily (aside from their limited quantities).
The recent re-release of Kwaidan, the haunting debut from Japanese artist Meitei, also marked the label’s very first vinyl release, a significant undertaking for any independent record label.
And with the year still powering through cautiously, Evening Chants have a slate of upcoming releases that signal further depths into the label’s expanding ethos.
What the heck does that mean? You’ll have to read my conversation with Lopez and Ho to find out, where they speak freely about running Evening Chants, Kwaidan’s repress, their schedule of upcoming releases, and what “horror musique concrete” sounds like.
Watch the first episode of Midnight Ambient Hour with Evening Chants on Singapore Community Radio above.
Hey guys! How was the circuit breaker for yourselves and Evening Chants?
Nigel: Hey Dan! I’ve always been a homebody, so I have to say that I selfishly enjoyed the circuit breaker. It definitely gave me some space to breathe and somewhat relax. I can’t say that much of my lifestyle changed.
Jasmine: The circuit breaker was great for me. I like staying at home and I don’t have any complaints being near my cat all day for the past three months! Been reading a lot more and having more time for myself!
Have the events over the past few months changed the course for the label’s plans?
Nigel: We were due to release the repress of Meitei’s Kwaidan in May. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the pressing plant we use in Dublin had to temporarily pause operations, which meant that we had to put our plans on hold as well. Other than that, we’re still on schedule for our upcoming releases!
Jasmine: That’s right! Due to delays in production, we took the time to pre-prepped ourselves on the release by liaising with artists and exchanging design ideas so that we can plan ahead and send them out once it was open again!
Stepping back to a few months ago, you guys handled a breakthrough release with Meitei’s Kwaidan on vinyl. For a tape label, why was vinyl added to the equation?
Nigel: I’ve always wanted to put something out on wax, but due to the costly nature of the medium, I’ve always been averse to it. However, I felt like it’s about time I took some sort of ‘risk’ and shake things up on my end, presenting the label with new challenges and opportunities.
Being a naturally risk-averse person, I only decided to press on vinyl after seeing the immense success that Meitei’s debut album Kwaidan got, and was fairly confident going into it. Now I’m hooked and wish that all of our releases can get pressed and released on vinyl. Hopefully, we’d be able to do it eventually.
Was the process different from getting your usual releases pressed?
Nigel: For sure. It’s definitely a more intricate format, which requires test pressings and intense scrutinizing before giving the green light. Moreover, the medium itself is significantly larger in size than a cassette tape, which means more space to play around with. Jasmine did an incredible job designing the vinyl artwork and layout and shaping the rest of our label’s identity on wax for all of our releases in the future. We have a very beautiful insert that will come with the upcoming Kwaidan repress that we’re very excited about!
Another difference would be in terms of shipping. Vinyl is relatively heavy and bulky, and as such, not only was it more expensive, but I had to make sure I had the right packaging materials and ensuring that it reaches the listeners safely.
Jasmine, how was the experience like doing artwork for Kwaidan’s vinyl release?
Jasmine: Evening Chants has given me the opportunity to directly communicate with the artist to find more ways to help visually translate, reflect, and amplify the experience of the music/record. I’ve always found that as one of the key responsibilities of a designer.
The feedback has been great so far and I am currently working with Meitei to do his other collaterals outside of EC. For the reissue this time, we’ve included an insert which is accompanied which a text-based commentary for the album to bring the experience even more. Meitei, of course, has helped pick beautiful Japanese artworks that captured the inspiration found in his soundscapes.
Is vinyl a format you’re still thinking about for future releases?
Nigel: Of course. As mentioned, if we could, I would press all of our releases on wax. But due to the costly nature of it, and how we are an independent label, we have to be more selective in which we choose to release on vinyl. Sometimes an album is just meant to be on tape and not on vinyl.
Jasmine: I agree with Nigel. Although I think we also look into other ways to help make the physical releases more interesting. For example, all our cassette tapes have an OBI band with a hand-embossed logo and our upcoming release includes a story booklet in the cassette.
So now that we’re entering a period for music where COVID-019 continues to rage on, what’s your take on the label’s future moving forward?
Nigel: We’ve already shifted away from the traditional record label since streaming took over, so I don’t see COVID-19 affecting Evening Chants in any way as we operate mainly online. Occasionally, we organize live shows here in Singapore, but we do not have any fixed schedule when it comes to it. I guess, when the right opportunity comes, then it comes. But, we don’t see it happening anytime soon.
One change that we do see happening is how our artists are going to tour. It is extremely unfortunate that this is the case, but hopefully, things will get better in time to come and they’ll get to share their music in the best way that they can: live.
Jasmine: On top of that, I definitely see us experimenting with different formatting. I would like to see our releases put out in more innovative ways in order to give and help the artiste reach a bigger listening audience that they deserve.
Are there certain decisions taken differently?
Nigel: We have taken into account that people are more wary of how they spend their money. Especially with this uncertainty, many people have lost their jobs or are at risk of doing so. As such, their priorities have changed and rightly so. I have to admit that it does feel a bit surreal releasing music in such times, but like myself, music will always be an important constant and it is only right that we continue to contribute to this the only way we can – to put out more amazing releases.
Do you believe it has affected the label’s use of physical formats?
Nigel: With the temporary closures of the vinyl pressing plant, it has accumulated some backlog in terms of operations, which has resulted in our orders taking longer than usual. Thus, we had to shift some of our releases to a later date.
Jasmine: I’ve got an extra soft spot for physicals — I feel that if it’s done nicely and well thought-out, people would still try to acquire them at the right cost.
Ever since the label has gained followers with each release, has it been a priority to engage with them?
Nigel: We try our best to keep them updated as much as we can on social media. We also keep in touch with them with our new releases via Bandcamp’s messaging system (which is incredible, by the way). We are immensely grateful for the support and love that we get from the community.
Could you tell us about what’s on the schedule for the label in 2020?
Nigel: It has been pretty quiet on our end since the Melting Bridge release due to personal commitments. But this year, we’re very excited to be working on a few releases that are all due for the second half of 2020. Apart from the Kwaidan repress, we have a few new releases lined up.
We have been working on one of the upcoming releases for awhile now by an incredible artist that not only dabbles in music but also art. So, we are very excited about introducing this highly overlooked artist to everyone. The best way to encapsulate the release is if the movies Midsommar and The Blair Witch Project had a baby, it would be it both sonically and aesthetically. I would also describe it as “horror musique concrete”.
Another one of our releases that we’re excited about is from a musician who has been composing music for films, documentaries and tv shows on Adult Swim, Netflix, etc. The album takes us into his own world of celestial soundscapes and personal life, completely disconnected from any of his professional work.
We also have an upcoming release from one of our familiar names, where we’ll be releasing our most “dance-iest” record so far, but of course, with an Evening Chants twist to it – keeping it weird.
12. Just to cap it off, what’s been spinning on your turntable lately?
Nigel: I’ve bought so many records during this period! But here are my more regular spins in the recent weeks:
Craig Kupka — Crystals: New Music For Relaxation 2 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Side A’s “Trombones of Lithia” is a gorgeous 20-minute composition with meditative, gentle and warm brass textures and layers. Very aptly named New Music For Relaxation 2, this album delivers exactly what it promises. A+ ambient/drone record.
Maxwell Sterling — Laced With Rumour: Loud-Speaker Of Truth (Ecstatic)
I’ve never heard of Maxwell Sterling before this release but immediately became a fan. This album originated from a “multi-channel installation commissioned by Nottingham Contemporary in 2018”. (Boomkat).
An intricate mosaic of jazz sensibilities with a strong ambient foundation, this album brews some sort of a fog throughout its 40-minute runtime. While it leaves me in an amnesiac state by the end of it, I keep wanting more and flip the record all over again.
Lamin Fofana — Dark Water (Black Studies)
I saw Lamin Fofana in Berlin last year at an old Franciscan monastery (alongside Kara-Lis Coverdale as well). He opened the evening with an ambient DJ set that instantly sucked me in and left me with a profound experience.
When I went back that night, I started doing some research on his work and have been waiting for him to release more music. Then came Dark Water, which released in June this year. This ambient record epitomized the very same feeling I had when I saw him in Berlin –peculiar yet highly intriguing synths and organic textures pieced together to create an incredibly cohesive sound. This album is not on vinyl, but really hope it gets pressed eventually.
Jasmine: I think the new Green-House and Skee Mask are great! I’ve been going back to The Depreciation Guild and Computer Data a lot too, it’s so enjoyable and always manages to lift my mood up while working.
Skee Mask — Iss006 (Ilian Tape)
Computer Data — Verlust (Lost Palms)
This article was originally published on The Analog Vault.