The key to survival has always been adaptability, a skill that applies even to the arts. And especially in the midst of a pandemic, it is all one can do to adapt, innovate and transform, for the sake of survival, something RuanAtWorkz Musical Arts (R.A.W.) embodies in both its goals and execution of their art.
Founded by ruan player and composer Neil Chua, RuanAtWorkz was formed with the aim of promoting traditional culture, music, art and other form of traditional values, with a focus on the titular Chinese instrument. But unlike other traditional arts groups, RuanAtWorkz sets itself apart by adopting a distinctly intercultural, multi-genre approach, combining Chinese music with everything from Bharatanatyam dance to electronic music and Teochew opera.
The result of that unusual combination is the multi-disciplinary performance Night Walker, which, after two public presentations as a work-in-progress, finally made its premiere as a fully realised performance in June. Playing as part of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre’s Cultural Extravaganza 2021, the project was poised as a site-specific work that made full use of the venue’s natural surroundings and interior space to enhance the piece’s message.
Unfortunately, due to heightened alert measures at the time, audience members could not experience the performance live, and instead, watched it through Facebook livestream instead (still available above, on YouTube). Nonetheless, even through these difficulties, what was presented showcased a more complete realisation of the creative team’s original vision, using camera tricks and lighting design to spotlight various performers throughout the show, as they came together as an unexpectedly resonant set of performers, particularly with Neil on the Ruan, haunted or perhaps, inspired by Bala Saravanan Loganathan dancing through the night.
Directed and dramaturged by Jeffrey Tan, there is the sense that we’re watching a dream unfold before us, a call to celebrate our multicultural society, and find meaning in the arts, as the performance prompts us to dig deep into our subconscious well, and reflect on the memories and stirring of emotions evoked by the night. Traditional arts do have a space in the modern world, as long as its creators keep innovating and striving to find new ways of presenting it.
One thing that can be said about RuanAtWorkz is how much love and care they put into this project, as evidenced by the commemorative album they’ve produced for the project. While the songs themselves can be streamed for free on Spotify, the album is a throwback to when we actually did have physical discs to play songs with and listen to. The album itself doesn’t contain any disc – just a QR code that links people to the album stream, but right down to the material of the album jacket, using soft recycled paper wrapped up in hand-tied twine ribbon, you can see the effort that has gone into this labour of love.
As producer Eric Ow says, it’s about presenting a work that’s simple and clean, with enough variation in the songs that will appeal to various listeners. The album progression follows the ancient Chinese “Night Watch” system, where a watchman would hit to announce the time of night every two hours. Each song then, represents a specific time of night, and explores how much change and evolution happens in the span of a few hours.
It’s certainly not dark – the second track, ‘Little Sparks of Inspirations’, combines the sounds of water flowing with ruan music to imitate the feeling of taking a jaunty evening stroll, while the third track, ‘Connections, Corrections’ applies heavy drumbeats and electric guitar plucking to give the song more of a hard rock feel. Even if you’re completely new to the world of ruan music and traditional Chinese music, the album comes with a physical ‘programme booklet’ introducing you to the various multicultural concepts Night Walker took inspiration from.
If traditional music is to survive in the modern age, it is to produce something new, unexpected, and altogether original, as RuanAtWorkz has with Night Walker. Grow the audience and ensure that there will always be someone willing to listen and appreciate the work that’s been created, and keep educating the public, catch their attention, and allow them to learn to love the arts.