Arts Review Theatre

Review: RATA – new grounds, new sounds by RATA Orkestra and Esplanade – Theatres on The Bay

New forms of composition for a new year.

In a year that has seen the world emerge from the wake of a global pandemic, lies an opportunity to reimagine our practices and interactions. In many ways, the RATA Orkestra is a group that represents that first step into a new future, with an eclectic band of musicians led by Safuan Johari presenting new music through a unique audiovisual experience.

In the first of their performances, RATA: new grounds, new sounds, the group take to the stage at the Esplanade’s new Singtel Waterfront Theatre, and showcase the results of their experimentations. Comprising Azrin Abdullah (oud), Andy Chia (dizi, vocals, electronics), Cheryl Ong (percussion), Rizman Putra (vocals), weish (vocals), guest artist Ruth Nova (vocals) and Safuan Johari himself on electronics, the ensemble’s performance is used to encapsulate the philosophy behind ‘rata’, which means ‘flat’/’even’ in Malay.

What that means is that all seven artists are given equal importance in the composition of music, taking turns to lead musical explorations that result in new ‘aural topographies’ and ‘transcultural ambient soundscapes’, thanks to their diverse backgrounds. In exploring all this newness, the Singtel Waterfront Theatre has been reconfigured into yet another new setup, this time where the ensemble are each given their own individual ‘island’ to perform on. Over the course of the show, audience members can weave in and out of this ‘archipelago’ at any time, where the perspective and sonic experience change ever so slightly depending on where one is standing, acting more like an interactive performance art installation than a standard concert.

These ‘islands’ (designed by Akbar Syadiq) also tie in with the music that is being played, creating a powerful image of land forms shifting and changing over time. Each island is adorned with alien ‘plants’ resembling plastic sea urchins, the texture of each platform reminiscent of corals underwater. When Brandon Tay’s projections dance over them, they come to life, layered in rainbow-hued blankets or patches of cell-like animations represented by pulsating pixels. We thus imagine the islands as a living, breathing landscape, and it feels like witnessing the epic birth and evolution of a planet.

Of course, the highlight of RATA remains the fascinating music, which often feels familiar yet original at the same time. Unlike a traditional orchestra, where you have a single conductor leading the ensemble, by standing on their own individual platforms, the musicians initially feel like they’re each in their own world, adhering to their own musical path rather than syncing up with the rest. But listen closely enough and you’ll start to realise that while physically apart, they are sonically connected, each instrument coming in to respond to each other, as if in conversation. It feels like different instruments take the lead from time to time, with certain musicians starting the first sound and others chiming in, before another person takes over, and the others follow their flow.

As diverse as each musician and style is, there is something magical about how it all comes together, and begins to sound like a ritual, heralding and celebrating the shifting landscape and soundscape, centuries ebbing and flowing before us. In watching the musicians too, you see them enter an almost trance-like state, allowing their bodies to express themselves along with their voices and sounds. One is reminded almost of a house party, where both musician and audience have freedom to enter and exit the soundscape as they please to adjust the experience, seemingly unbound by any score to root them.

Ultimately, what makes the Rata Orkestra work is how visceral an experience we get out of it, completely immersed in the atmosphere. A high whistle from Andy Chia’s dizi causes us to turn our head, or we watch as Rizman Putra stomps along as he sings. Ruth Nova begins chanting while weish’s voice reaches a fever pitch. Safuan is completely focused on his screen, while Azrin gently, constantly strums on his oud. And Cheryl Ong? She flashes a wry smile as she turns up the bass, and we feel the earth move beneath our feet.

Everyone is a part of the climax, all coming together to create a spiritual experience, as the music rises and fills us. It feels like the end of a long journey we’ve taken, each musician on their own path but arriving at this same final destination, taking everything they’ve learnt and experienced along the way to create a dazzling finale. This is a flat world, not in the sense of suppression, but in the sense of a non-existent hierarchy, where everyone is given equal importance, and their contributions are valued. This is a true activation of the space in the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, as if the venue itself is speaking, fully released, and finally ready to break free and welcome a brand new slate of performers and performances to fill the space, as we say goodbye to the end of an era and usher in a new year.

Photo credit: Matin Latif, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

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

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

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