Arts Interview Theatre

RATA – new grounds, new sounds: An Interview with director Safuan Johari

In the blink of an eye, another year has gone by, and we’ll soon be saying goodbye to 2022. But before the year ends, sound artist and music producer Safuan Johari will be concluding it with a bang, as he and the Esplanade premiere the RATA Orkestra this December.

Rounding off the Esplanade’s In New Light season of commissioned work at the newly opened Singtel Waterfront Theatre, the RATA Orkestra is a new collective headed by Safuan, and in this iteration, will feature performers Azrin Abdullah (oud), Andy Chia (dizi, didgeridoo, electronics), Cheryl Ong (percussion), Rizman Putra (vocals), weish (vocals), with guest artist Nova Ruth (vocals), a Java-based Neo-Soul musician and an artivist. Safuan himself will deal with the electronic elements of the music, while longtime collaborator Brandon Tay will provide mesmerising visuals to support the show.

Safuan Johari

“The Esplanade first approached me to do a music showcase at the Waterfront Theatre,” says Safuan, on the project’s origins. “Given those instructions, I decided that I would form my dream band, and it ended up becoming a small orchestra – the RATA Orkestra. This ended up being about two years in the making due to the delays from the pandemic, and I took my time to gather and work with people I was familiar with but also, would come together to produce something so different from before, where these new combinations would create different depths of sound, and be more willing to try new things compared to their usual style.”

Guest artist Nova Ruth. Photo Credit: Lilqueenr

But what exactly will the RATA Orkestra be presenting with RATA: new grounds, new sounds, dubbed ‘a visceral audiovisual experience’? For one thing, it’ll be presenting the versatile Singtel Waterfront Theatre in yet another new stage configuration; after seeing it as a classic proscenium, a space where audience and performers are onstage at the same time, and even a theatre-in-the-round setup, RATA will be turning the theatre into a flat floor gallery, which is referenced in the show’s title (‘rata’ translates to ‘flat’).

This gallery isn’t just going to be a static space though, as the musicians of RATA play their set throughout the experience, creating an ‘ambient soundscape’ supported by wild visuals. What audiences have is the freedom to go as close to each of these performers as they want, changing up the way they view and understand the work, and decide for themselves how they will encounter these ‘aural topographies’.

“In creating the music, we did a lot of experimenting and re-learning about each other’s practice and how we ourselves could contribute to this new sound,” says Safuan. “We began the workshopping and devising process around the middle of 2021, and as one of the first times all together in the room, we started off by just putting everything aside and catching up on what we’ve been up to over the pandemic period, in terms of art and life. That put us in this reflective and contemplative mood, and it was a nice start to how we would start acting as a group and think of compositions to produce together, exploring new musical identities and possibilities together that we now had an opportunity to.”

“And for that to happen, a lot of it was about pushing us out of our comfort zones during jamming sessions, and we came up with some rules of engagement for the compositional process,” he continues. “When you put musicians together, people tend to be very nice, and they try not to get in each other’s way, so things sometimes end up plateauing. So we came up with this Ally/Enemy game, where we would draw lots to determine our role, and we’d take turns responding to a melody and try figuring out which team we were on through these responses. We recorded a lot of the results, and studied these interactions, using it to figure out what we liked or didn’t like, and that led to a lot of our compositions for RATA.

RATA at work. Credit: sortco

It is through these differences that RATA found new ways of making music together, each person contributing their own part before Safuan makes it all a cohesive sound, harmonising and crafting something new. But how then will the audience see it all come together? “The main idea is to make it feel like they’ve entered a ‘RATA world’ through the spatial design,” says Safuan, who explains how each musician will be given their own island or platform to perform on. “The word ‘rata’ made me think of the process of the formation of land, and how that cycle of flux and stasis could even link back to music cycles. Compared to say the Western perspective, where music tends to be more linear, Indian classical musical is more cyclical, where despite moving in similar ways, each musician can somewhat move independently, or new musicians can come in, while still corresponding to the cycles they’re on.”

RATA at work. Credit: sortco

“So RATA then takes on a process of discovery, presenting these new ways of composing with the musicians and transpose that experience to the audience as well, showcasing cycles in music, and visually through Brandon Tay’s multimedia, presenting land masses of the past and future,” he adds. “If you’ve ever been to the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern, that’s the experience we want audiences to have walking into the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, like a big art gallery where you can chart your own path freely, and redefine the live music experience.”

RATA at work. Credit: sortco

With the end of the year approaching, Safuan also reflects on his experiences in the local music scene, and what he thinks is next. “One thing I realise is that there is always so much happening in the local music scene, but we’re not always aware of everything, and all these platforms available,” says Safuan. “We can’t just see how many listeners or followers you have on streaming platforms, let’s say the traditional Malay music scene, they’re constantly active doing events or their own private gigs, from weddings to school platforms, and have their own crowd.”

“In Singapore of course, it can be difficult for music to be sustainable, because unlike bigger countries, where you tend to be appealing to the same slice of the general public each time, as compared to seeing new faces in the audience or expanding those audiences,” he continues. “Musicians however, aren’t daunted, and there are so many people who are driven by passion, like how I recently discovered The Dad Bots Collective, who do modular synth music and get regular gigs at Gillman Barracks. We need to help these indie artists out by learning to actively seek out new pockets and bubbles and discover them for ourselves. Kind of like how you can’t watch only blockbuster movies or arthouse films your whole life – it’s healthier if you change up your art consumption diet, and develop a culture where we try new genres and gigs from time to time.”

Is there hope then, for the next generation of artists? “I had to sit in for three nights of auditions the other day, and saw how there were so many people fighting for just five roles,” says Safuan. “I do wonder a lot about the sustainability and availability of space for young artists to enter the industry. It’s not easy, but what I can sat is that it’s encouraging that there are constantly new avenues to find a niche or get work, whether it’s venues or platforms.”

“And for the future of RATA Orkestra, what keeps us together are those same rules of engagement we came into this project with, something we can maintain even if the members change for the next project, playing with the idea of transcribing verbal scores to text, or changing about the sequencing,” he concludes.

“I’m glad we’re ending off the year with this project, because there’s a sense of conclusion to it being the last project that was conceived pre-COVID, and it’s finally getting its time to shine. Hopefully audiences get to see and experience something new, just like how myself and my collaborators found it a new and refreshing experience to work together on this project, to round off In New Light in this new venue, and to look forward to more new opportunities ahead.”

RATA: new grounds, new sounds plays from 29th to 31st December 2022 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Tickets available here

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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