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Solo Series - Martin Ng

Martin Ng

Solo Series #7 - Martin Ng (watch video here) - turntables

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“Well for me, personally what I think enriches the audience most is if you seek to exact a calculated disappointment.” Martin Ng. 

Recently I shared a meal with before a gig with Martin Ng and Matthew McGuigan from the Hospital Hill label. I’d been thinking about how to approach writing liner notes to accompany Martin’s exquisite performance for this Solo Series and so I flicked on my voice recorder. When I listened back I realised everything I needed was expressed in the conversation we shared. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

I asked Martin about the antecedents for the work he creates:

Martin - So for the solo work for the AAO, it comes from a particular view I have of my own music creation. Which is that, in a particular way, I am referencing a body of music that I have deep affinity with, like 3rd century Chinese classical music, Tibetan temple music, Korean traditional music like p’ansori, and I see that as my heritage.

Peter - Your cultural or musical heritage?

Martin - Well, it resonates with me but I also see it as my cultural heritage, I’m Chinese and I find that 3rd century or Three Kingdoms Chinese music, with its space and rhythm… in a way all those regions like Japanese or Korean music of that time or Chinese music have that use of space, and they have that kind of emphasis, not so much on rhythm, but using time as drama. And that the spaces in-between the events are just as important as the events. And actually in that piece dealing with a very limited sound world, but drawing deep within it. I think from that work is a long journey in that philosophy of drawing from that tradition.

But you know, when you listen to something like a koto player, and they have that flexibility in the notes they can get with that instrument. I actually think that, interestingly, with a turntable you can do that in the way the old masters did with those instruments. You achieve a different sound, but you can get at that intent. It’s just trying to further that sound language and idea that is ancient but with a set of instruments that are contemporary.

Peter - Wow. I would never have imagined that your answer to that question would have been 3rd century Chinese music and Japanese music, but it makes total sense, and so it’s a really nice process of learning.

Matthew - Yeah, see I would have thought maybe you’d say like Derek Bailey mixed with early 20th century electronic music.

Peter - Exactly, and I thought you’d be also talking about music concrète…

Martin - And I think that when I say that and then you think about it from what you saw [on the video] you can understand that it’s true, the tradition.

Matthew - Like a little two part, like a string instrument and a voice do a little thing, then there’s bass, then they do another little thing.

Peter - And also when I was watching the video I was noticing how often this one motif would come back, you would just keep bringing it back, and back, and back, and when you talk about it in terms of those musics it’s kind of like… it really makes sense.

Martin - I think it’s an unusual take on the way a DJ approaches turntables, I’ve never even heard of a DJ or a turntable player [approach turntables in this way].

Peter - Are you a DJ?

Matthew - When I’m describing you as a DJ, there’s something that feels wrong about that. I describe you as a turntablist.

Martin - So yeah I’m not sure I’ve heard any turntablists aspire to want to achieve that in their practice, but for a long time now, maybe for years, I’ve been trying to hone that idea.

Peter - And so what were you doing before that? When you would’ve called yourself a DJ? Before you started to hone that idea, what were you doing?

Martin - Well I was always trying to fight against the idea of a DJ’s practice being limited by the record box or what [records] you brought. It was always a response that was just innate in me.

Matthew - Did you have an idea that was creative? A thing you wanted to get across… And the turntables were an outlet?

Martin - No, I just happened to be the guy that listened to a lot of records, who was then DJing in a lot of high school parties and clubs. And then when I was in the club, I just got really bored, and I thought I’m just like a conveyer belt of beat syncing, and this is absolutely mind numbingly insanely boring, but actually if you look at the instruments it’s incredibly fascinating. I mean I was DJing in the 80s right, the mid 80s, and so instead of having two turntables I’d have three turntables and then instead of beat mixing like two techno records you’d have like one techno record on the right, and then you’d beat mix like an Egyptian tambourine record, solo, just hard left, and then in the middle you might manually spin like a Miles Davis trumpet solo or some weird thing like that. That’s essentially DJing. But that initially was like how I got bored of the idea of playing it as a DJ. And actually I said, “Fuck that”. Well actually it wasn’t my idea, it was then people who came to gigs that then said “Well actually you’re really interesting, maybe you should play in my band.” So people asking me to play in their band led to me then taking the decks out of that context and then playing in bands.

Peter - And so do you want people to actually feel anything in particular when they listen to your music? Are you trying to evoke something in particular?

Matthew - Because it seems like going from being like that regular DJ where the whole point is about the audience, then you’re slowly turning into fuck the audience. And are you now back to try to make something for the audience?

Martin - No, I don’t think so. Well for me, personally what I think enriches the audience most is if you seek to exact a calculated disappointment for them.

Peter and Matthew - [laughs].

Matthew - That’s beautiful.

Martin - I think that what I just said about the whole Chinese music history and things, I mean that’s very personal. When the AAO asked me to do this, this solo, I thought look, I should represent myself, my craft, and my particular view of music that I stand for, which is part of my craft. But the solo piece gets at many things that are interesting… As an improviser, I don’t like narrative anymore, I think narrative is disappointing. In succumbing to narrative you are not disappointing the audience.

Peter - You are disappointing yourself by not disappointing the audience? 

Martin - Narrative is the circus trick of improvisation.

Matthew - Like the Golden Mean climax, then fade out.

Peter - That’s what you’re defining as narrative? Basically you are defining narrative as tension and release?

Martin - Yes, or the expected conventional drama of a musical piece. Like I think that experimental improvisation or Western improvisational practice has an expected dynamic. And I think that having spent the first half of my career embracing it, I think for me anyway one way forward is calculated disappointment.

 Watch Martin Ng’s Solo Series video here.

Solo Series #7
Performance: Martin Ng 
Photo: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight
Audio and Video producer: Leo Dale

Earlier Event: June 27
Solo Series - Peter Knight
Later Event: August 25
Aviva Endean at inaugural Sound Out